I have just read ‘Tender is the Flesh’ back-to-back with Stanley Tucci’s ‘Taste’ (which I loved) and quite honestly you could swap premises and they would read the same – human waxes lyrical over eating animal; human waxes lyrical over eating human.
So, yes, “Tender is the Flesh” is about cannibalism – legal, legitimised and sanitised cannibalism. The conceit is questionable: a global virus has made all animal meat uneatable, so over time people turn to eating people – or rather ‘heads’ that are bred for butchering. It may be, of course, that the virus is a myth and it’s just a way of managing overpopulation. Who knows? I say it’s a questionable starting point, but perhaps if you live a meat-oriented country, such as Argentina, the relentless urge for meat is not so far-fetched.
But we all know how dystopian fiction works so let’s go with it and enjoy Agustina Bazterrica’s wonderful writing and characterisation. This is old-school dystopia that would happily sit alongside post-war satirist writers from the forties and fifties.
The subject matter is a tough read. Really difficult. Certainly, in the early chapters I felt repulsed by what I was reading and in the hands of a lesser writer it might have descended into something more gratuitous and sensationalist, but not here. Good writing can and should confront the darker areas of the human condition. As PG Wodehouse said: ‘… there are two ways of writing novels. One is making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going deep down into life and not caring a damn …’
This novel goes all the way down.
I am conflicted about recommending this book. I think it’s fantastic because the writing is so good and it has contributed to my world view. I see food programmes and books like “Taste” through a different prism now. Perhaps, “Tender is the Flesh” is the first book I have read where I can truly empathise with the animal world. But also, I know, there will be readers for whom (and forgive the pun, I have tried to resist, honestly) this subject is too strong to stomach.
So all I can say is that I’m glad I read it and perversely I’m left with an image of the final scene in “Animal Farm”. To quote: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again, but already it was impossible to say which was which.’
“Tender is the Flesh “by Agustina Bazterrica. Published by Pushkin Press, Nov 2020.