~~here be spoilers. also, content note/trigger warning for: implied violence against children, violence against women, violence against animals, rape, murder, eugenics, cannibalism~~
It’s an arguable premise: civilization, believing that all animals contain (or could contain) a virus deadly to humans, makes the Transition and begins to eat factory-farmed human meat. Why, the casual reader might think, should we believe that would work? As Bazterrica’s sickeningly straightforward novel demonstrates, there are two reasons why it might: first of all, we already have the infrastructure in place for large-scale breeding, slaughter and processing of carcasses; secondly, people can and will get used to almost anything if it’s presented to them using the right words. Language, vocabulary and speech are Bazterrica’s concerns just as much as the obvious capitalist metaphor of consuming human bodies; in fact, I would argue, more so. Cannibalism in this book is what Adam Roberts in his History of Science Fiction calls a novum (he takes the word from scholar Darko Suvin): one single new idea or change to the way society works that an author uses to illuminate and comment upon other, usually wider, phenomena. Bazterrica has written a horror fable about slaughtering humans like animals, sure, but she’s also written a critique of language as a tool for control: it’s not just about what is said and not said by politicians and the media, but about who even has the permission or the right to speak, and the implications of speech for—quite literally—our humanity.
Our protagonist, Marcos, works in an abattoir. His father used to own a tannery, but it was sold after the Transition, and in recognition of the family’s history, Marcos has been given an administrative job at the Krieg Processing Plant. He does not kill the “heads”, as humans reared for consumption are called; instead his job involves communicating with, and visiting, the other businesses with which the processing plant works: breeding centres, game reserves, the tannery, and, finally, the Valka Laboratory. This, of course, gives the reader access to a broad overview of the factory-farmed human meat industry, which is convenient for worldbuilding purposes; also, and more cleverly, it keeps Marcos away from overtly violent action, so that for long swathes of the book, we think of him—sometimes almost ridiculously—as the only good man left in a sick world. Narration is third-person limited, so Marcos doesn’t get to speak directly to us, but we never leave his head: his eyes are ours, and naturally his perspective is, too. We get to know about the dogs he loved in his childhood, which he was forced to put down when the panic over animal transmission started; we spend time with him at an abandoned zoo, where his now-dementia-ridden father used to take him; most devastatingly, we learn about the loss of his child, a baby much wanted and born only after endless agonizing rounds of IVF, donor eggs, and debt. (Reproduction, and the great, complex imponderables of human families and legacies, is a major interest of Tender Is the Flesh, which is of course also, and overtly, interested in the opposite idea: reproduction as breeding programme. The first “head” we meet is a stud male. There is a brilliant, horrible scene very early on in which Marcos, visiting a breeding centre, witnesses a staff gathering: the men are barbecuing a kid in celebration, since one of them has just become a father. The kid, of course, is a human child, not a young goat. “Want a sandwich?”, the centre director asks.)
Throughout this early scene-setting, Bazterrica—usually through Marcos—keeps directing us to think about language. It is the book’s very opening scene, in which Marcos wakes covered in sweat, obsessing over words:
Carcass. Cut in half. Stunner. Slaughter line. Spray wash. […] No one calls them [humans], he thinks, as he lights a cigarette. He doesn’t call them that when he has to explain the meat cycle to a new employee. They could arrest him for it, even send him to the Municipal Slaughterhouse and process him. Assassinate him, would be the correct term, but it can’t be used. […] His brain warns him that there are words that cover up the world.
There are words that are convenient, hygienic. Legal.Tender Is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica, p. 11
Only a few pages later, he considers how the government used rhetoric around the supposed animal virus to suppress dissent, and discusses a circulating conspiracy theory: “He believes in a theory that some people have tried to talk about. But those who have done so publicly have been silenced. The most eminent zoologist, whose articles claimed the virus was a lie, had an opportune accident. He thinks it was all staged to reduce overpopulation.” (p. 14) Whether this is a plausible global population strategy or not hardly matters; what matters is the word silenced. It is planted early, and for good reason. (This would be an appropriate time to mention the translator, Sarah Moses, who—as far as I can tell as a non-Spanish speaker—has done sterling work in rendering the novel’s flat, uninflected affect in English. This is praise; as we’ve seen, the language is meant not to draw attention to itself, the better to lull us into acceptance of Bazterrica’s premise. I found myself frequently mentally replacing the human bodies swinging from hooks and having their throats cut with cows or pigs, as I was supposed to. It is easy enough to do during most of the slaughterhouse scenes. The most disturbing thing about this novel is how much violence and horror it manages to show a reader before the reader becomes seriously disturbed.)
The inciting incident of the plot is that Marcos is gifted a purebred female head from the director of a breeding centre, in one of those business-to-business not-quite-bribes. He has no idea what to do with her; initially, he ties her up in an outbuilding, leaving her food and water. One night she watches him burning his son’s cot, and—drunk, musing that it looks almost as though she understands—he unties her. When he wakes up, she is lying next to him, asleep. He doesn’t touch her then, but later, when he has to clean her, he becomes aroused and rapes her.
I have to be very clear about this, because the point of the book is that Marcos is not clear about this at all. It is rape in the same sense that bestiality is rape: not because the female is an animal, but because, like animals, she is physically incapable of giving meaningful consent. The vocal cords of heads bred for consumption are removed when they are young. She is, in fact, inferior to a cow or a pig in terms of speech ability: not only can she not speak, she cannot even scream, or wail, or make any sound at all. (Interestingly, Marcos never tells us whether the heads are capable of producing tears.) He moves her into the house, teaches her how to use utensils and sit at a table, and keeps her locked up in a modified bedroom while he is away at work (lest she hurt herself wandering around the house, of course). As she becomes more domesticated, the relationship becomes more disturbing; she is a cross between an abducted sister-wife and a house pet. He names her Jasmine, after the way she smells. She is eight months pregnant by Part Two.
The speechlessness of the heads is absolutely central to the system that raises and slaughters them. They are kept in isolation from birth, and are not socialized in any of the ways that human beings require to function in community with one another, but they are clearly not stupid. No genetic modification is made to their brains, and we can infer that the intellectual potential of an average head is still that of an average human. Their consciousness is complex enough that they seem able to understand futurity: when Jasmine is delivered to Marcos, she is terrified, suggesting that she understands herself to be in danger even when she’s removed from the abattoir. Impregnated heads have their arms and legs removed, because otherwise they tend to ram their stomachs into the sides of their cages to induce abortion. This is intelligent behaviour, and therefore the tool that most reliably renders one human capable of appealing to another for mercy or understanding—speech—must be denied them. The industry that creates them could not exist otherwise. Rendering a living creature silent is the essential step that moves it from a potentially sympathetic figure to a passive object.
This isn’t a new point, particularly not when it comes to women and society’s other historically low-status groups, but Bazterrica succeeds brilliantly in rendering Marcos’s hypocrisy. In his inner monologue, he is indignantly alive to the cruelty perpetrated upon the heads, fully conscious of their humanity, and hyper-aware of the qualities of words; he almost figures them as having life in their own right. In his actions, however, he is exactly as in thrall to the manipulative nature of language as everyone else whom he judges so disdainfully. He can rape, imprison and impregnate Jasmine precisely because the use of language is denied her. He has absolutely ceased to think of her as human, if he ever did, by the time she gives birth to their baby. The last gut-punch, on the final page, I will leave to those of you who end up reading the book, but you will not be surprised by it; it is the only possible conclusion to which Bazterrica’s careful set-up can lead.
It may be common in literature to excoriate humanity’s capacity for violence, priggishness and self-righteousness, but I cannot think of another novel that commits more fully to the working-out of the idea, nor one that implicates the reader more thoroughly. We are Marcos, after all—his disgust with his industry is our response, too—but because we are Marcos, the inconsistency of a humanitarian impulse that makes exceptions for the behaviour of “people like us” is also our burden. A politically liberal, educated reader ought to squirm at this. Without rigorous self-examination—and without artists like Bazterrica to shock us back towards honesty—murder, it turns out, is the least of the damage we can do to each other.
Tender Is the Flesh was first published in Spanish in 2017. The English-language translation, by Sarah Moses, was published by Pushkin Press as a trade paperback in 2020; my edition is the 2021 B-format paperback.