Since its publication back in February, Argentinian author Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh has been making headlines. Dubbed ‘disturbing’, ‘hideous’ and ‘gut-churning’, the dystopian world Bazterrica creates is one in which animal meat is no longer edible. The government’s solution? Breeding and farming humans for consumption.
We wanted to sit down with the author herself to find out how she feels about the success of the book so far, and the responses it has incited.
So, Agustina. Hello! Tender is the Flesh has been getting a great response here since it was published in February. Can you tell us a bit about how the book was received in Argentina?
In Argentina it was special because a lot of the first readers were other writers, people I know from coordinating a reading event called “Siga al conejo blanco” (Follow the white rabbit). Then winning the Clarín Prize suddenly brought me a lot of media visibility and many more people rushed to get the book. It was an exciting and hilarious time in my life.
Then readers started really talking about the book. Even people who don’t usually read books read it, and a lot of them then wrote to me on social media. But the best thing, the thing that I’m most grateful for, is the fact that different schools and universities invited me to talk about the novel. That for me was so important, because I had the chance to talk to teens about capitalism, about how we naturalize violence, and many more issues that are important to me. I’m so grateful for everything that has happened since the book came out.
The headline of a recent BBC Culture article about Tender is the Flesh was ‘Can a book make you vegan?’ Do you think fiction can have that kind of impact, whether it’s from the writer’s intention or not? Has a book ever made you significantly change your behaviour?
I think that good art generates questions, mobilizes, makes us look at the world differently. I think of Marx, how his texts altered our understanding of the world. Or Freud. I think of Orwell’s 1984 and how it still makes us reflect on totalitarian governments. Or how Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale makes us think about the patriarchal structure. Or Picasso’s Guernica and its reflection on war.
With Tender is the Flesh I never intended to write a vegan manifesto. I tried to write the best novel I could possibly write, without trying to convince anyone of anything because, in my opinion, fanaticism is another form of violence. That said, there were people who read the book and stopped eating meat. Perhaps my novel only helped them make a decision that they had already been considering.
Art, in general, changes me all the time. It offers me new perspectives on the world. A book or a work of art is actually a way of looking at the world of another person, and if that perspective is original or interesting, then I learn. For example, the documentary Earthlings was what I needed to see to stop eating meat, but I had been thinking about it for a long time. Also, I read a lot of poetry because I think that poetry reveals to us what is hidden in words.
One aspect I haven’t seen so many people pick up on is the humour in the book. A moment that stands out is when the sauce from a ‘special meat’ sandwich slowly falls on a man’s white trainers. Did you sometimes enjoy writing scenes that you knew would elicit disgust? Also – were there any scenes or descriptions you cut from the novel because they were too extreme?
No, I didn’t cut any scenes. But it wasn’t hard for me to write the gruesome scenes either. By the time I was writing I had already done the research, which was the most difficult part of all. When I write I don’t think about readers’ reactions. I think about what works best for the story. But yes, I tried to create a balance in the information I gave, in what I showed and what I didn’t. And in that process, I didn’t show all the horror. Only a part – horrible of course, but only a part.
Humour? Maybe irony. For me, the part where the sauce falls on the trainers is hideous. He’s eating a baby! I didn’t think of the novel in terms of black humour but some readers have found humour in it. One of my friends told me that she thought the novel was hilarious. But in general people don’t laugh. They are horrified.
You’ve talked in interviews about how fundamental research is in your writing process. I remember Sarah Moses, who translated Tender is the Flesh into English, kindly deciding to spare me the details of a slaughterhouse process she had to look into while working on the novel. How did you cope with the grisly research for this book? Was there anything that particularly surprised you?
Sarah was wise. It’s worse than the worst horror movie.
I cried, I had nausea, I despaired. I saw many terrifying images: when they remove the beaks from chickens so that they don’t peck each other in overcrowded cages, when they flay the skin from wild animals while they’re alive (because it works better), when the pigs scream because they know that they are going to be killed, when a monkey was tortured by hitting its head with incredible speed because they were “experimenting”, seeing cats and dogs in cages and then being eaten.
On to more pleasant reading material—what have you been reading in lockdown? Have you noticed any changes in your reading habits?
I’m leading a lot of virtual workshops. One would think that during quarantine there is plenty of time to read, but that’s not the case for me. However, I reread Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King’s The Institute, Little Night Music by Argentinian writer Liliana Diaz Mindurry, short stories by Juan Carlos Onetti, Peter Straub and García Marquez and now I’m reading about wolves in the book The Wisdom of Wolves by Elli Radinger. And, of course, I read poetry all the time. I’m reading the complete poetry of Argentinian poet Claudia Masin.
Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica (translated by Sarah Moses) is out now with Pushkin Press. Available to buy from Waterstones, Foyles, Amazon and your local independent bookseller, or currently on ebook for under £5.