Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you’re enjoying my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
I am a lifelong vegetarian who has always flitted in and out of veganism. My longest stint as a vegan lasted for two years, my shortest just a few weeks. I guess a book about the horrors of industrial farming was always going to appeal to me. Well, I can safely say that since finishing Argentine author Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, I’ve well and truly entered another vegan phase—one that I reckon will last.
Set in a dystopian world in which cannibalism has replaced meat consumption, Tender is the Flesh tells the story of Marcos, a processing plant employee. The novel is set after what is referred to as “the Transition,” a government initiative to curb the spread of a deadly pandemic by eradicating animals believed to spread it. Bereft of animals to eat, humans start breeding and rearing each other for consumption. Only, the humans bred to be eaten are referred to as “heads”, “specimens”, or “FGPs (First Generation Pures)” and their meat is called “special meat”.
As well as being financially dependent on a job he finds deeply disturbing, Marcos, a Winston Smith-esque character, is having a tough time at home: his father is nearing the end of his life in a care home; he recently lost his baby; and his wife is taking time away from their relationship to grieve. And then he receives a gift: a female specimen, delivered to his home.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Tender is the Flesh is possibly the darkest book I’ve ever opened. When I read the section about how the limbs of female specimens are removed to stop them harming their prized young, I physically retched. There’s also graphic rape scenes, a character called Sergio who specialises in striking specimens’ heads “so their throats can be slit,” and a truly upsetting Scavenger attack on truck full of specimens being transported to the processing plant. Everything about this book is disgusting. And yet it’s also utterly arresting.
Marcos, through whom we experience this horrifying universe, is alone in seeing the world he inhabits as morally perverse and Bazterrica adroitly uses short, sharp sentences to demonstrate his detachment from it.
“He opens the barn. The female is curled up on the floor, in the fetal position. She’s asleep and looks cold despite the heat. The rice and water are gone. He prods her a little with his foot and she jumps. She protects her head and curls up further… She never looks at him. Her life is fear, he thinks.
At just 219-pages, it would’ve been difficult for this novel to be anything but heavy on exposition. The first third of the book is ostensibly a tour of the slaughterhouse, but it also functions as a detailed description of how things got this way. As a narrative method it’s perhaps a little blunt, but I was so absorbed by the story that I didn’t really mind.
Tender is the Flesh is a book about animal cruelty—about industrialised farming, the dairy industry, and the ethics of keeping pets. But it’s also a pretty damning, not to mention well-timed, take on humanity’s unwillingness to meaningfully engage with a world that’s falling to pieces.
You’ll know whether or not this is a book you can stomach. If you’re not too squeamish, you’re in for a pacey dystopia that’ll put you off your dinner and have you questioning your morals. Also, to save you googling it yourself, the author doesn’t eat meat.
Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses (Pushkin Press, 2020 / Alfaguara, 2017)
More books from Argentine authors
Here’s a list of other recommendations I received this week.
The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada, tr. Chris Andrews
The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, tr. Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh
Fate by Jorge Consiglio, tr. Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch
Include Me Out by María Sonia Cristoff, tr. Katherine Silver
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez, tr. Megan McDowell
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, tr. Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff
Paradises by Iosi Havilio, tr. Beth Fowler
Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac, tr. Roy Kesey
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, tr. Megan McDowell
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Diego Lorenzo from Programa Sur and Carolina Orloff from Charco Press for their recommendations for this issue. If you’ve been forwarded this email and you enjoyed it, you can subscribe below.