“If everyone was eating human meat, would you?” asks Agustina Bazterrica’s provocative and chilling novella. Set in a dystopian world where cannibalism has become legal, if disguised by the euphemism “special meat”, Bazterrica follows a factory owner, Marcos, whose business revolves around the production and supply of human flesh, even as his once-dormant conscience is awakened by an unexpected arrival in his slaughterhouse. Elegantly translated by Sarah Moses, this is bleak, sometimes sickening stuff, but there is no doubting the conviction with which Bazterrica presents this very contemporary parable.
But Marcos’s main obsession is not flesh but language: how we construct the world out of words, how we speak the unspeakable, and how we negotiate the gap between words and reality. In a narrative otherwise so blunt and blood-spattered, he piles metaphor on simile as he tries to convey the weight of others’ words – his wife’s voice “a river of lights, an aerial torrent” when discussing the child they might have, then uttering only “black holes” when grieving his death; his sister’s speech “like boxes filled with blank paper”, smelling “of confinement, of intense cold”. When he visits a laboratory experimenting on humans, the only way he can think of to defy the Mengele-like scientist in charge – whose words “are like tiny tadpoles dragging themselves along” – is to withhold his own speech.
When Marcos is given a woman to rear at home for private consumption, he neglects her at first, before realising she may be the answer to the problems he is having with his estranged wife. The story, translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses, is told with a chilly aloofness that makes the horror of it all the more disturbing. Descriptions of naked, mute human beings undergoing the treatment we currently reserve for cattle will turn even the strongest stomachs.
Sitting comfortably? Not after even the tiniest nibble of this gut-churning, brilliantly realised novella. When a nasty virus poisons all animal meat, people reject the vegan option and look to another abundant source of protein: so-called special meat, or humans...
When Marcos is gifted a prize piece of living flesh (i.e. a person), he breaks every rule by not eating her and is on the path to redemption until, well, a twist. Much, much more than a horror story, here is a no-holds- barred, red-blooded take on meat-eating, consumerism and human nature itself.
Of course, implicit here is the ghastly way we treat animals in the industrial food chain. There’s nothing described that isn’t done to livestock. It’s not an elegant read, but it’s grimly engrossing, with a sucker-punch ending. And it may well put you off that bacon sandwich.