What would it take for the human race to revert to cannibalism? Before you dismiss this as an outrageous question consider the situation of the Uruguayan flight that crashed in the Andes in 1972, those who made it down from the mountains only survived by eating human flesh. If needs must will people chose human meat? Sickening as it may sound, it has been put forward as a solution to the future food dilemma. Swedish scientist Magnus Söderlund suggested only last year that it was squeamishness that prevented us from considering anthropophagy, (cannibalism). That’s why I don’t think Tender is the Flesh can’t be pegged as a horror story, if that is taken to mean escapist entertainment. That implies something unreal, something made up to scare us that we can then walk away from, like the film Bone Tomahawk in 2015. Tender is the Flesh is a novel you can’t dismiss lightly, this is not reality but it reflects on the darker recesses of human behaviour that make it plausible and therefore terrifyingly realistic. This is a credible what if? An intelligent musing on the future of mankind and a reflection on past inhumanities. If now, in 2020, we are nowhere near eating human flesh as a matter of course what could happen that would make that a reality? This is not like the post apocalyptic film Soylent Green, 1973, where the shock at the end, (spoiler alert) is that human beings are being eaten we learn that upfront here, even knowing that the ending is truly devastating. Imagine!

Bazterrica’s novel is credible, dystopian but scarily realistic. Nobody is going to be able to read Tender is the Flesh and walk away unscathed, it’s a bruising read, painful and disconcerting. Not just for the flesh eating theme but for the echoes of othering, of slavery, of racism, the refugee crisis and even of the Holocaust that haunt us from the past but also blight our modern societies. Some will read into this novel themes around vegetarianism and a food apocalypse.

How does a society ring fence a portion of the population, breed them, detach itself from them to the point of being able to eat them? They dehumanise them by stealing their voices, denying them any rights, making them property, reinventing the language that accompanies their abuse, they treat them badly, (is this not the basis of slavery?) Could it really happen? All the more easily if we refuse to believe it could. Bazterrica is a fine storyteller readers will get caught up in the tale.

Of course, near future dystopian novels are not uncommon, the way things are going with climate change, pandemics, refugee crises, demagogic political leadership we are likely to see many more in the coming years. Very few will offer any kind of original thought on the future of humanity or pull you up short the way this novel does by questioning how this could happen. Fiction only chills when it has something of the truth about it. My preferred reading is usually very dark, cynical, sceptical novels, so I’m susceptible to such a bleak tale but by any standard this is a remarkable read. This is breath-taking and inventive. This novel plumbs the depths of the human soul, the monsters are very ordinary people. It goes to the heart of what it is to be human and flawed and susceptible or angry and violent, capable of grotesque brutality. Consider this: the corollary of eating human flash is being eaten, it’s not a one way street. The ending is genuinely shocking, terrifying, even for the most hard hearted cynic. Given a plausible set of circumstances how long does it take to descent to the ninth circle of hell? This is not for the feint hearted but it’s not for ‘the end is nigh’ proclaimers either, it’s for people who worry about the way the world could be if we get it badly wrong. Take the first paragraph:
“Carcass. Cut in half. Stunner. Slaughter line. Spray wash. These words appear in his head and strike him. Destroy him. . . They burst in on the night, catch him off guard. When he wakes, his body is covered in a film of sweat because he knows what awaits is another day of slaughtering humans.”

In this world there is no mention of the word human though, to do so would mean arrest, perhaps a trip to the municipal slaughterhouse. Other words are banned in favour of hygienic, legal words that salve the conscience. The boss asks Marcos to assess two potential recruits, show them the ropes, not everyone is cut out for this work. Marcos learned slaughter at the Cypress Meat Plant working for his father, in the days when cows and pigs were edible. To hear the terror of a pig about to be killed is a memory that never left him. The meat have had their vocal chords removed, no need for ear defenders anymore. Still Marcos wishes he could be anaesthetised to the “Transition”, the process, the brutality. This is cannibalism.

When GGB struck it led to mass panic, hysteria, fear, even suicides. Animals could no longer be eaten, vaccines and antidotes could not keep up with the mutations and resistance of the virus. Is this the revenge of the vegans? A plague because of the mistreatment of animals? Then the doctors began discussing the ‘need’ for meat protein, essential amino acids, the darker side of veganism. Meanwhile people are dying, animals represent a deadly threat. Groups began killing other humans for food, it began with immigrants. Of course there were protests, dissenting voices, at least in the beginning. Pressure from big industrial concerns began to sway governments. People need food, graded for purity, skin quality, and colour. The tastiest cuts fetching a prime price.

Part of Marcos job is to visit the tannery, to determine the future orders, types of skin required, and the breeding centre to ensure supply matches demand:
“There are times when one has to bear the weight of the world.”

After one visit to the breeding centre he receives a present, a female, FGP, (first generation pure). As a qualified slaughter man he can dispose of the specimen himself, sell it or cook it as he so chooses. But lacking any tenderness in his life Marcos is fascinated by the specimen. His wife left him, now he has alcohol and a solitary life. The choice he is about to make will change everything.

Tender is the Flesh is macabre, unflinching, an almost Orwellian-plus vision of the survival of humanity and the cost that comes with it. It is, as I’ve said, plausible, it will resonate for its echoes from life as much as its dystopian vision. The tension and growing sense of tragedy this tale engenders is palpable and just in case I wasn’t clear about it the ending is a hand grenade to the heart.

Paul Burke 5/4*

Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica
9781782275572 Pushkin Paperback February 2020