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Tender is the Flesh Summary and Key Themes

“Tender Is the Flesh” by Agustina Bazterrica is a dystopian novel from 2017, delving into a world where cannibalism is not just accepted but institutionalized. 

This Argentinian masterpiece explores deep and disturbing themes such as misogyny, the dehumanization of individuals, and the manipulative power of language.

Full Summary

In this harrowing narrative, we enter a society that has turned to breeding humans for meat after a virus renders animal flesh unsafe. The protagonist, Marcos, navigates this nightmarish world, grappling with his own moral compass. 

His role at Krieg Processing Plant, where humans are processed as ‘head’ or ‘product’, puts him at the forefront of this ethical dilemma.

Marcos’s personal life is as tumultuous as his professional one. Haunted by the loss of his son Leo and the subsequent departure of his wife Cecilia, his home feels like a void, reflecting his internal turmoil. 

His attempts to bury his grief in work are complicated by his responsibility towards his mentally deteriorating father, Don Armando, whom he has placed in an expensive care facility, New Dawn Nursing Home.

The plot thickens when Marcos receives an unsettling gift from a client: a female FGP, a high-grade human breed. This gift, meant as a token of appreciation, only adds to his moral conflict. His struggle with what to do with her is a critical point in the story.

Marcos’s solace comes in unusual places, like an abandoned zoo near his father’s nursing home, a reminder of simpler times and his father’s influence. His complex emotions are further stirred by a call with Cecilia, where the shared grief over their son becomes painfully apparent.

In a moment of despair, Marcos burns Leo’s old cot, a symbolic act watched by the female FGP. His growing attraction to her leads him into morally grey areas, culminating in a forbidden relationship. He names her Jasmine and starts a secret life with her.

The novel takes a darker turn with the death of Don Armando and the subsequent family fallout. Marcos’s sister, Marisa, who had distanced herself from their father, hypocritically insists on a farewell service, leading to a confrontation that lays bare family hypocrisies.

The climax is as unsettling as it is tragic. Jasmine’s pregnancy leads to a complicated birth, with Marcos calling Cecilia for help. 

In a twisted turn, they decide to keep the child as their own, leading to the harrowing decision to dispose of Jasmine to hide their secret.

Key Themes

1. Dehumanization and Commodification of Humans

At the heart of Bazterrica’s narrative is the chilling concept of humans being bred and slaughtered for consumption, following a societal shift caused by a virus making animal meat unsafe. 

This theme explores the ethical and moral boundaries crossed when humans are reduced to mere commodities, similar to livestock. It forces readers to confront uncomfortable questions about the nature of humanity and what it means when the sanctity of human life is disregarded. 

The novel’s portrayal of humans as ‘products’ or ‘head’ in processing plants serves as a metaphor for the broader theme of dehumanization present in various forms in society, including in labor exploitation and human trafficking.

2. Moral Dilemma and Ethical Conflicts

The protagonist, Marcos, embodies the internal struggle between societal norms and personal morality. His role in the processing plant puts him in direct contact with the brutality of his society’s practices, causing him continual distress and ethical conflict. 

This theme explores the psychological impact of living in a society where morally reprehensible actions are normalized and institutionalized. It raises questions about complicity, resistance, and the limits of individual morality in a corrupt system. 

Marcos’s interactions and decisions throughout the novel highlight the complexities and difficulties in navigating a world where traditional moral compasses are upended.

3. Use of Language to Mask and Normalize Atrocities

Bazterrica’s novel also critically examines the power of language in shaping perception and justifying wrongdoing. 

The euphemistic terms used to describe the breeding, processing, and consumption of humans (“head,” “product”) illustrate how language can be manipulated to disguise the true nature of horrific acts, making them more palatable to society. 

This theme reflects broader societal tendencies to use jargon, euphemisms, and bureaucratic language to obscure the reality of violence, abuse, and exploitation. 

It’s a commentary on how language can be a tool of oppression, desensitization, and control, influencing how people perceive and accept ethical transgressions in their daily lives.

Final Thoughts

“Tender Is the Flesh” is not just a story; it’s a mirror to our society’s darkest possibilities, questioning the boundaries of humanity and morality in a world gone awry. Bazterrica’s novel is a haunting exploration of what happens when the unthinkable becomes normal, making it a must-read for fans of dystopian fiction.

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