Tender is the Flesh: An Exploration of Exploitation

**CW: cannibalism, SA, animal cruelty, gore, pregnancy/childbirth, child loss, abuse**

“He doesn’t call it special meat. He uses technical words to refer to what is a human but will never be a person, to what is always a product.”

What is the value of a human being?

That is the question Argentinian author, Agustina Bazterrica, forces the reader to interrogate throughout her harrowing novel, Tender is the Flesh. The novel was originally published in Spanish in 2017. The English translation by Sarah Moses was published later in 2020. Although gaining immense popularity in TikTok’s BookTok community, this story is not for the average-stomached reader. It is a deeply honest look on what it might look like if capitalism were taken to its most extreme.

And that is brutally disturbing. 

Set in a fictional near-future, the story follows a morally-gray main character, referred to by others as “Marcos.” Never introduced by the author, the reader is truly plopped right into the thick of his life grappling with a family tragedy while going through his day to day life as a supervisor at a meat processing facility. 

Here’s the catch: A virus has made animal meat dangerous for consumption. So, what’s the meat industry to do?

Eat people.

They eat people. And not only do they eat them, a system is quickly adopted that brutally dehumanizes, slaughters, and packages human beings without hesitation. 

The reader immediately sees that a hierarchy has formed. On top, is the general population. On the bottom, the product– the “head.” The general public, and the reader, now must decide what the criteria is for who’s meat, and who is not. 

We watch, safely hovering above the page, as our main character wrestles with how rapidly the entire world accepted what was once an unspeakable crime. Matters become exponentially more complicated when Marcos is gifted a female head. By law, she is not to be treated in any remotely humane manner. The moral dilemma heightens. 

It is not a long book- being barely over 200 pages. But, that does not mean it’s a quick read. Several breaks to process, or to distract oneself from, the horrors described within those pages was necessary for this writer to finish the tale.

Marcos moves between being semi-likeable and shockingly amoral. There are moments when he is relatable in his grief and struggle with The Transition. And then, there are moments when he makes it very hard to sympathize with him. I don’t believe we are meant to be rooting for him. There are no heroes in this story.

That being said, though, it is a deeply moving commentary on the dangers of unchecked capitalism, exploring the depths that exploitation might reach. If you can stomach it, it’s well worth the read.

You might be wondering what a feminist magazine is doing a book review on a gory horror novel for. The thing is, dehumanization for profit and the exploitation of unfettered capitalism are injustices often fueled by patriarchy. And on this particular day, Earth Day 2022, we are examining the wider reach of exploitation even as it uniquely affects women.

Image from goodreads.com

Vicki Barclay is the Editor-in-Chief of Serpentine Literary Magazine.


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