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Agustina Bazterrica: Cadáver exquisito (Tender Is the Flesh)

Both the Spanish and English titles are (presumably deliberately) misleading. The Spanish suggests that the corpse of some random dead person looks very good, while the English implies that the body of some person, probably though not necessarily female, is soft and cuddly. However, when you learn that this book is about cannibalism – and not occasional cannibalism as practised by some primitive tribe or by a Jeffrey Dahmer – but full-on, institutionalised, worldwide cannibalism, you will understand that the Spanish really means delicious – as in nice to eat – corpse while the English means that the flesh of a corpse that is to be eaten is tender. Indeed, the Spanish title refers to a gruesome game a couple of children play in the book.

I do have three books on this site with the word cannibal(s) in the title: Mary McCarthy‘s Cannibals and Missionaries, John HawkesThe Cannibal and Richard Bausch‘s Hello to the Cannibals, with only the latter covering actual cannibals and then only obliquely. Four other books on this site mention cannibals/cannibalism: Andrej NikolaidisThe Olcinium Trilogy, Sergei Lebedev‘s Гусь Фриц (The Goose Fritz) and Alek Popov‘s Мисия Лондон (Mission to London) but, again, it only plays a tangential role in the book. Only in Shalom Auslander‘s Mother for Dinner do we get full cannibalism and in the contemporary USA at that.

In this novel cannibalism is the subject of the novel. It is set in Argentina after the Transition. Before the Transition, it was like it is today. Most people, particularly in Argentina, ate meat, though there were, of course, vegetarians and vegans. Then a virus struck which affected all animals. All the animals – cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry but also other animals such as cats and dogs – either died or were killed, leaving the world without meat. Was there a virus? 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. Others will share this view throughout the book.

Eventually, people started surreptitiously and illegally killing humans for food and, gradually, it became legal. The governments gave in to pressure from a big-money industry that had come to a halt. Certain humans were bred especially for the purpose. They were taken from immigrants, the marginalised, the poor. You were not allowed to call them humans. The meat was referred to as special meat. Naturally there had been protests but soon it was more or less accepted.

Our hero is Marcos Tejo. He had been studying veterinary science but that became irrelevant after the Transition. He now works for a meat processing plant. His firm buys in bodies slaughtered in the local slaughterhouse and sells them as meat. His job is to deal with all problems, which means we see him travelling around on what is called his meat run, meeting suppliers, i.e. those that breed the humans for meat as well as customers, i.e. butchers.

Marcos has two problems, with a further one added during the course of the book. He is married to Cecilia. She had problems conceiving and tried various fertility treatments. Eventually, they had a son, Leo. Sadly, Leo died very young and Cecilia was devastated, so much so that she left Marcos and went back to her mother. They communicate by phone.

Marcos’ father, who ran a slaughterhouse before the Transition, has not adapted well to the new situation and is now in a home with dementia. Marcos visits him regularly and pays for his care. Indeed, he changed his job from a badly paying government inspector, which he quite enjoyed, to his current job, which he does not enjoy but at which he is very good, in order to pay for the care home. Marisa, Marcos’ sister, whom he does not like, rarely visits, saying it is too far and because she has twins to look after.

He adds to his own problems. The owner of the breeding station with which his firm has a contract sends him a gift – a high quality young woman for eating. Having any sexual relations with such a woman is a capital offence but Marcos feels that he can get away with it.

Much of the book tells of the various horrors this system produces. In many cases, the humans bred for meat are treated as badly as animals and, in many cases, worse. Indeed, Bazterrica lays on the horrors, one after another. From hunting to live medical experiments, nothing is held back. If you are at all squeamish, this may not be the book for you.

In addition, she is quick to damn the hypocrisy of the people. One family illegally kept some women destined to be meat as slaves and got into a lot of trouble for it. He remembers there was a sentence that everyone repeated, horrified: “Slavery is barbaric.” There are many other examples.

Marcos is seen as a more or less good man: a loving husband and father, a man who, since the death of his son, has given up meat and who shows some feeling towards the woman he has been given and is horrified by his sister’s attitude. However, even he turns out to be no saint.

This is probably one of the grimmest books I have ever read. Bazterrica is clearly making a point – about overpopulation, meat-eating and its harmful effect and the hypocrisy of people. She makes it by laying it on very thickly. No detail is spared, for example, in the actual slaughter of a person for meat and then how she – for the person is a clearly identifiable human female – is cut up and what happens to the various bits, hair and faeces included. For many, this level of detail will be too much but for those who can stomach all of that, it certainly is an interesting novel.

Publishing history

First published by Alfaguara 2018
First English translation by Penguin Random House in 2018
Translated by Sarah Moses