Tag Archives: Argentina

Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender Is The Flesh


Book: Tender is the Flesh is the second novel by Argentinian writer Agustina Bazterrica, and her first to be translated into English. It won the prestigious  2017 Clarín de Novela prize for a Spanish-language novel.

The smell of barbecue is in the air. They go to the rest area, where the farmhands are roasting a rack of meat on a cross. El Gringo explains to Egmont that they’ve been preparing it since eight in the morning, “So it melts in your mouth,” and that the guys are actually about to eat a kid. “It’s the most tender kind of meat, there’s only just a little, because a kid doesn’t weigh as much as a calf. We’re celebrating because one of them became a father,” he explains. “Want a sandwich?”

The impact of this paragraph changes drastically when you understand that the word ‘kid’ means ‘a human child’.

16th-century Dutch engraving of cannibalism in Brazil

In the tradition of Brave New World, Never Let Me GoThe Handmaid’s Tale and the film Soylent Green (which it references), Bazterrica’s novel describes a near-future society which  de-humanizes certain social groups in conventionally “unthinkable” ways in order to assure its own survival. Following a virus which has made all contact with animal flesh poisonous to humans, the meat industry has persuaded governments to legalize the breeding and slaughter of people. They are raised on breeding farms, genetically modified to speed their growth, carefully monitored by the Food Standards Agency. We learn more than we might wish to know about their slaughter and marketing, because our hero, Marcus, manages a slaughterhouse; he is also responsible for sales and distribution of so-called ‘special meat’. You may scoff at the science behind the “virus”; so does Marcus, who wonders if the whole affair was a government lie to solve overpopulation and its consequences. You may scoff at the idea that people would ever eat people: Marcus, who lived through the so-called “Transition”,  recalls how society evolved to accept butchers selling ‘brochettes made of ears and fingers […] eyeball liquor […and] tongue a la vinaigrette’. You may comfort yourself that human flesh is cumulatively poisonous to humans, but Wikipedia reassures that this is not necessarily the case; that cannibalism is historically ubiquitous; and that most other species are getting on with it.

Accuracy:  In all the clinically observed horror of industrialized cannibalism, the reader might forget that this book is equally about infertility and baby loss. Marcus is traumatized by both. He is separated from his wife, Cecilia, who left him when their infant son suffered a cot death. This was the final blow in a long chain of suffering: ‘ […] conversations about the possibility of adopting, phone calls to the bank, children’s birthday parties they wanted to escape, more hormones, chronic fatigue and more unfertilized eggs, tears, hurtful words, Mothers’ Days in silence, the hope for an embryo […], pregnancy texts thrown helplessly into the bin, fights, the search for an egg donor, questions about genetic identity, letters from the bank, the waiting, the fears, the acceptance that maternity isn’t a question of chromosomes, the mortgage, the pregnancy, the birth, the euphoria, the happiness, the death’. The themes of flesh-eating and baby loss merge vividly in a nightmare Marcus experiences, where ‘a wolf is eating some meat. Whenever he looks at the wolf, the animal raises its head and snarls. It bares its fangs. The wolf is eating something that’s moving, that’s alive. He looks closer. It’s his son, who’s crying but not making a sound’. Marcus experiences his grief so deeply that he is only able to break up and burn his son’s empty cot, months after the tragedy, on the day his life is turned upside down by the gift of a twenty-year-old purebred ‘female’.

Pregnant ‘females’ (meat stock are never referred to as men or women) are recognized as temperamentally different, and treated accordingly: they are often requested for game-hunts, because their condition makes them more ‘vicious’.  At breeding farms, pregnant females have their limbs removed because they ‘otherwise kill their fetuses by ramming their stomachs against the bars of their cage, or by not eating, by doing whatever it takes to prevent their babies from being born and dying in a processing plant’.  All females are artificially inseminated; any man who has sex with one of them is liable to be seized and sent to the slaughterhouse himself. We don’t experience the novel’s single labour scene in great deal, but when Marcus recognizes a crisis (‘the mattress is soaked with a brownish-green fluid’, implying fetal distress), it gets resolved with Call the Midwife-like celerity.

Style:  I can’t judge the style of the original Spanish, but translator Sarah Moses (who co-translated Harwicz’s Die, My Love, previously reviewed on this blog) has made her English version compulsively readable, keeping the novel’s few lyrical flights the right side of tendentious.  I was particularly impressed by her lexical skills with naming cuts of meat.

Empathy: This book is all about empathy. With whom we empathize; when and why we cease to empathize; what defines humanity, and family.  As Marcus reflects, ‘What do the workers [in the slaughterhouse] think about? Are they aware that what they hold in their hands was beating just moments ago? Do they care? Then he thinks that he actually spends most of his life supervising a group of people who, following his orders, slit the throats, gut, and cut up women and men as if doing so were completely natural. One can get used to almost anything, except the death of a child’.

The Pregnancy Test’s Verdict: Don’t read this  book over a rare steak. Stick to Quorn (if you can find it).

Just Pure Rage: Ariana Harwicz and Die, My Love

Ariana Harwicz, Die, My Love (Matate, Amor), Charco Press, 2017. Translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff.

Accuracy “I’ve been needing the loo since lunch but it’s impossible to do anything other than be a mother. Enough already with the crying. He cries and cries and cries. I’m going to lose my mind. I’m a mother, full stop. And I regret it, but I can’t even say that. Who would I say it to? To the boy sitting on my lap, sticking his hand in my plate of cold leftovers, playing with a chicken bone? No! Leave that alone, you’ll choke. I chuck him a biscuit. He gives it back. […] I call my husband. I need reinforcements. While I’m dialling, the baby hangs off one of my shoulders. He’s going to tear me apart. […] Hello, listen love, I need you to come home now, I can’t go on like this. […]”

Yes, I think we can agree just from this passage that Die, My Love is pretty unflinchingly accurate in describing the daily routines of a stay-at-home mother caring for her tiny son, as an outsider marooned in the French countryside  her husband calls home. Told almost exclusively from her perspective (by turns fervid and comic), this short book follows an obsessive love affair against the background of a relationship stifled by parenthood.

Empathy  As above, full marks for empathy. The unnamed mother struggles to reconcile to a life violently re-shaped by childbearing (“I’m one person, my body is two”) while her husband seems happier pretending nothing is wrong (even suggesting they have another one). The narrator’s behaviour is troubling beyond the point of self-parody (she walks through a glass door; screams death threats at her husband; shoots an injured dog; identifies herself with the wild beasts of the forest) yet, even after an inconclusive spell in a therapy centre, everyone continues to trust her to look after her child. While at times her narrator’s tantrums and obsessive sexual fantasies challenge belief, Harwicz has a keen eye (and her translators have a keen ear) for the petty details that bedevil motherhood, like the narrator forgetting to pack a snack for her son on a visit to friends, or an outing to the seaside spoiled by the parents’ incompatibility(“It wasn’t until we were driving over the white lines of the road in complete silence that we realized we hadn’t even taken our son into the sea”).

Style Now jagged, now lyrical, always throwing questions at the reader and herself, moving in a heartbeat from desire and affection to fury and sadism, Harwicz’s narrator’s style is absurdly engaging, even contagious. There are nappies and pizzas, but there are also chainsaws and shotguns. Best not read around one’s children. Harwicz doesn’t just flag up the absurdity of motherhood; her narrator is gunning for the entire human condition. Here are some gems:

“My ovaries wring themselves out and there’s a blood clot in my knickers that runs down my legs. I don’t think I’m pregnant again, it’s just pure rage.”

“I hope the first word my son says is a beautiful one. That matters more to me than his health insurance. And if it isn’t, I’d rather he didn’t speak at all. I want him to say magnolia, to say compassion, not Mum or Dad, not water. I want him to say dalliance.”

“She lived in her body as though it were an infested house, as if she had to tiptoe through it trying not to touch the floor.”

The Pregnancy Test: Positive The Guardian regularly gives space to discussion of post-natal depression, which is important and laudable. It is even more important, however, to acknowledge the range of post-natal experience, positive and negative, depressive and obsessive; and to encourage women to talk about the shattering mental and physical experiences that come with giving birth to a baby and continue throughout the early years of motherhood. A recent contributor writes: “Nothing prepares you for the onslaught and the exhaustion, mainly because we don’t yet talk about motherhood honestly enough. We don’t talk about the “normal” brokenness nearly enough. I suppose a comparison could be bereavement, where it is arguably “normal” to feel broken for a while after losing a loved one. But if that brokenness goes on, month after month, to a point where someone feels like they can’t get their life back, then it needs to be addressed.” The importance of Harwicz’s book for readers is that she does address the “brokenness” of mothers but without pigeonholing this experience as PND. While sharing the metaphor of bereavement, Harwicz’s narrator’s experience transcends PND the way a planet eclipses a moon: “I was in mourning for a long time, but there came a moment when, like the widow who unlocks her front door for the first time, who eats dinner in silence for the first time, who gets into bed alone for the first time, I felt a sadness that was exhilarating, wild.”