Because a virus has infected all animals and made their meat poisonous, a new product has been established: “special meat,” which means human flesh. Since the death of his child, Marcos, the manager of a slaughterhouse, has become frustrated with his job and the realities of the society he lives in.
If you didn’t know how animals are processed in a slaughterhouse, how they are stunned, bled, dismembered, skinned and gutted, then you will learn a lot about it in this book because Agustina Bazterrica explains in great detail how the process works, except that in this case, there are no animals, only human beings. There is however not a single difference in the treatment of them because in this world, meat is meat, no matter where it’s from. These are humans that have been bred for consumption, but the truth is that everyone can end up on a plate because if people commit certain crimes, are in debt, or sacrifice themselves for religious reasons, they will be slaughtered, too, only their meat will most likely not be a premium product up for sale, but will probably be thrown to the scavengers, poor people waiting outside the slaughterhouses for meat of poor quality.
There is not much worldbuilding in this book because it is rather short, and I don’t think that Bazterrica was really interested in that. The virus for instance is not clearly explained, and there are some hints that it may have just been a hoax by the government in order to reduce overpopulation and poverty. There seems to be an oppressive regime in place, but not many details are shared about it. One thing that is made clear is that there are many laws pertaining to the special meat, but also on the use of language regarding it. It is not allowed to call humans bred for consumption humans because they are just merchandise. Consequently, they are not called humans throughout the book which dehumanises them not only to the characters, but also to the reader. They don’t act like humans either because they have been raised like animals, and thus act like ones, and they also have no voice because their vocal cords have been removed. The power of language and the way atrocities are hidden behind euphemisms and technical terms are an important theme here.
What all this leads to is that the feelings of horror the goings-on evoke are very strong, but feelings of sympathy are hard to come by, and this was a terrifying realization. It is a cold book in this regard, just like its protagonist Marcos is a cold man. He does his job with scary efficiency, and although he begins to have doubts about cannibalism, it seems to be more out of disgust about the whole situation and the people that profit from or revel in it than out of any kind of compassion for those that are slaughtered. Still, for most of the book I thought that Marcos was a rather conventional protagonist for such a story, a man deeply imbedded in a wrongful system who sees the error of it due to a tragic event, who subsequently tries to buck the system and gets found out. Luckily, Bazterrica proved me wrong and wrote a surprising ending, shedding new light on Marcos as a character and wrapping the story up fittingly.
Overall, the story is ugly and brutal; it is drenched not only in blood and gore, but in the hypocrisy that seems to be a defining element of humans as a species. The propensity to just look away in the face of such horror and injustice, to deceive oneself with pretty words, and the greed that leads to the damage of humans, animals, and the planet to get what is deemed essential or one’s right is inexplicable and shameful. Questions posed, among others, are whether humankind would really stop at nothing to get what it wants, where the line is, if there is one, and what exactly it is that separates humans from animals. There is nothing subtle about this book, it is blatant and polemic, and it shoves its opinions down its readers’ throats, but maybe this approach is needed for a topic like this one. Read it, if you think you can stomach it.