review of Agustina Bazterrica's novel Tender is the Flesh

...there are words that cover up the world.

This book is basically a brainstorming session on the subject of: what are the most depraved things society might normalize if we started labeling certain humans as objects instead of people?

If it were just a speculative exercise about an implausible future, it wouldn't be so disturbing. What makes it a depressing read is the knowledge that much of the book’s horror is commonplace in the real world. The human-meat industry in the story is, obviously, modeled on the real animal-meat industry; mind-boggling numbers of creatures are living in exactly the sort of hell that the “head” in the story must endure. Nor do you have to think hard to recall times when a society decided that the members of some particular human demographic simply don’t matter, and proceeded to exploit and degrade them so brutally that literally eating them wouldn’t have been much worse.

The novel illustrates several factors that can lead us to tolerate cruelty: fear-based propaganda, economic pressure, euphemistic language, desire to fit in, willingness to do anything for the sake of our loved ones… the most unsettling, perhaps, is that the products of cruelty can come to be associated with high culture. It’s easier to convince yourself that your pursuit of pleasure is noble, rather than just greedy and selfish, if the pleasure you’re pursuing is regarded as sophisticated. In the book, there’s a chilling monologue by a character who oversees a human “game reserve”, demonstrating this sort of glorification of experiences that require imposing an enormous cost on someone else:

There's a vibration, a subtle and fragile heat, that makes a living being particularly delicious. You're extracting life by the mouthful. It's the pleasure of knowing that because of your intent, your actions, this being has ceased to exist. It's the feeling of a complex and precious organism expiring little by little, and also becoming part of you.