Sharp Edges

Beware of books with ‘paradise’ in the title. Fernanda Melchor’s third novel, about the living hell and unconscious death wish of two boys in the tropics, voices the furious emptiness that defines lives without prospects in today’s stalled Mexico, where inequality, social decomposition (especially in the countryside, drained of adult males following the destruction of communal land tenure in the 1990s), political corruption and the abdication of institutions have turned a once centralized country into a patchwork of narco-regions. These conditions are especially acute in Melchor’s home state of Veracruz, where her work is set. If Mexican literature has been overwhelmingly urban over the last fifty years – and the cities are still comparatively functional – Melchor’s nose for national decay leads her to provincial small towns and edgelands.

Melchor was born in 1982 and studied journalism at the University of Veracruz. Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists outside official war zones; nonetheless, while working in PR at the same university, she soon began to research hybrid, non-fiction crónicas, later collected in Aquí no es Miami (2013), as well as publish instantly acclaimed fiction. Though she has since moved inland to Puebla – and is currently part of the Artists-in-Berlin programme – her writing remains steeped in the heat, lust and precarity of the eastern seaboard.

Life’s blights are always conveyed from within her characters’ minds, mostly in free indirect style, mixed with direct or reported speech. Melchor has created a lusciously carnal brand of orality (as she has pointed out, few would understand the way Veracruzans really talk). One novel has no paragraph breaks at all, and her sentences can be extremely long, in an overarching past tense that makes a change from the primacy of the present in contemporary fiction.

That’s why he only ever started drinking once he was safely on the dock: he’d sooner endure that bitch of a thirst than the fear of being spotted by one of the residents or that prick Urquiza. Once there he would crack open a beer, or on a good day take a good glug directly from whatever bottle of hard stuff he’d been able to afford, and wait for the warm, cottony relief to envelop his entire body, cushioning him from the world’s sharp edges, and he’d pull out a cigarette from its fresh packet and …

Or, more typically:

… and all he could think about was sticking two fingers up to them all, quitting his miserable, piss-pay job and punching that idiot Urquiza on his way out, a quick one-two to his smug fucking egghead: who’ll wash your car now, you fucking faggot …

The slide in and out of crude subjectivities of recollection has pedigree. José Revueltas’s sublime horror of a prison fable, The Hole (1969), mingles turpid streams of narrative and consciousness in a way that surely influenced Melchor. The technique was earlier employed by Vargas Llosa in his tremendous second novel, The Green House (1965) – an interiority inspired, like much of Latin America’s ‘boom’ experimentation, by Faulkner. In the acknowledgments of her Hurricane Season (2017) – shortlisted for the Booker International Prize in 2020 – Melchor mentions García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), but she doesn’t adopt its lyricism. If her work risks airlessness with its identity of form and content – violent experience expressed in violent language – it makes up for this with an irresistible propulsive energy.

The novels differ more in their structures than in their psychic worlds. Her debut, Falsa liebre (2013) moves between two pairs of characters whose paths finally cross; Hurricane Season is polyphonic, each rambling chapter told by a different person to cast light, or rather darkness, on a local witch’s murder; Paradais emanates entirely from the mind of sixteen-year-old Polo, the gardener at a gated community called Paradise (the title is the phonetic spelling in Spanish). Yet its dynamics are those of a two-hander. Where Hurricane Season shuffles between the viewpoints of a connected but riven group of villagers, variously deranged by desire and despair, Paradais rests on opposites of poor and rich: the proud, fed-up Polo and his unlikely boon companion, the abject, repulsive Franco, who lives with his grandparents in the posh development, and is referred to as ‘fatboy’. In fact, though neither would notice, they are similar. Both are loners, both have been expelled from school (next term, Franco will be sent to a punitive military academy), and both identify fulfilment with an impossible dream.

For Polo, it is a kind of nirvana on the river, independence at the tiller of the boat his feared but loved grandfather promised to build them. But Grandfather died, and with him the dream. For Franco, it is sex with his neighbour, the classy Señora Marián whose ‘blow-job lips’ and ‘sumptuous tits’ obsess him to the point of spoiling ordinary porn. There is just one, early passage where we enter Franco’s mind and become privy to his single concern. The rest of the time we only see him through Polo’s contemptuous eyes, ‘his love handles and his weeping pimples and his sad manboobs that wobbled obscenely each time he moved his hips’. Franco’s monomania, fed by boozing with Polo on the dock every night, grows into a reckless plan to rape Marián. Polo goes along with it, for the sake of the jewels he could steal as a calling card to the narcos he imagines impressing. Yet he also claims never to have taken fatboy seriously. The whole novel is presented as a self-justification in flashback, often repeating its first sentence – ‘It was all fatboy’s fault, that’s what he would tell them’ – and rhetorically demanding more than once ‘how the fuck was he supposed to know what the crazy prick would be capable of doing in order to bone that bitch. Who could have known he really meant what he said?’

Naturally, the plan goes horribly wrong. Narrated in a long, strobe-like sequence of what Polo remembers as ‘almost soundless instants’, their blunders in the family’s house involve much pathos (tying up the young sons), much gore (everyone but Polo dies, including Franco), and even some ghastly comedy, as when he helps subdue the woman Franco had expected would cooperate: ‘I told you just the hands, for fuck’s sake, how am I supposed to fuck her if you tie her legs together?

Polo escapes the scene by swimming across the Jamapa river, the place he associates with peace and happiness, and persuades himself he has been cleansed. The dissociation from reality that afflicts both adolescents peaks on the last page, as the survivor returns calmly to his workplace the next day in ‘the comforting certainty of his total innocence’. This is unlikely to wash with the police, for the impunity that coddles the top layers of Mexican criminality does not extend to the bottom. Coolly non-judgmental herself, Melchor leaves us to grapple with the matter of personal responsibility. The boy’s craven self-exculpations, for instance: there are surely some broader excuses for him, that occur only to us. Is it his fault that the generation of multi-skilled, self-reliant men like his grandfather has passed nothing down? The political and economic backdrop is never explicit in Melchor, but its repercussions touch all her characters. It is due to the few options available for women if all that awaits Polo at home, a place he avoids by getting drunk, is a nagging mother and a detested older cousin, Zorayda, who once seduced him and is now idle and pregnant, about to ‘saddle him with that kid who, as far as he knew, could be pretty much anyone’s in town’. It is due to the failings of public education and the few legal options for rudderless boys like him that he is forced to support both women with the exploitative, humiliating job at Paradise.

In this senseless space, void of institutional, traditional or ethical parameters, the logic of cause and effect has dissolved, so it’s easy for characters to make crazy choices with no sense of consequence. A darkly comic scene at Walmart brings this home. The boys fill a trolley with equipment for the night’s larks: packing tape, later swapped for what the assistant helpfully identifies as ‘kidnapper tape’, torches, black trousers and hoodies, black tights for balaclavas. Polo is briefly terrified – ‘it was so obvious what they wanted all that for’. But nothing happens. Conversely, Polo ignores the glaring consequences for his best friend Milton of working with the drug gangs (coyly italicized as ‘them’). Milton has become a wreck, but he drives a showy SUV, and so Polo clings blindly to the suicidal illusion that they might offer the deliverance he seeks in the temporary numbness of drinking, which ‘was never enough to knock him out completely, to send the whole world packing, to switch off completely, be free’.

Anxious, performative machismo is the great underlying theme of Melchor’s writing. Misogyny permeates Mexican society, epitomized by the hundreds of ‘femicides’ that first became notorious, along with the shocking official inaction, in the northern-border factory district in the 1990s. Melchor’s men may hate most other men, but they hate women absolutely, qua women; their bodies inspire horror, as when Polo imagines ‘the murky, yellowish fluid filling Zorayda’s revolting stomach’. Meanwhile Melchor’s women have internalized the culture to be as mean, libidinous and foul-mouthed as any man – though, crucially, they often accept responsibility, and do not see themselves as victims. Some of her more towering females merge with the mythic.

Thus, the murdered recluse around whom Hurricane Season revolves is not the classic victim of femicide – young, semi-emancipated yet vulnerable – but a powerful healer and abortionist who convened orgies in her mansion, seducing both sexes, and is believed to have pots of money stashed away, like an ogre. Likewise, the sight of Señora Marián brandishing a knife dripping with gore at the top of the stairs merges for Polo with the Bloody Countess legend that always scared him on the way to the dock. And Milton’s drug boss is a fearsome young woman.

Paradais reads more easily than its predecessor, lacking Hurricane’s bewildering profusion. But it is slighter: the narrator is eaten by resentment, something necessarily repetitive. The other fellow, forever wanking, farting and wiping away drool, is a caricature, even if he marks an important divorce of depravity from deprivation. The translator Sophie Hughes, who gave us Hurricane, once more provides a ringing version of Melchor’s orality. My only reservation is that it reads so much more coarsely in English than in Spanish, hitting a maximalist note all the time. Terms like pinche or pendejo are everyday speech in Mexican – it’s just a sweary lingo. Every vieja is not, as here, a ‘bitch’ and few uses of cabrón, an interpellation that peppers friendly chat, warrant the here inevitable ‘asshole’. Even a harmless phrase like ‘sabría Dios el motivo’ (‘God knows why’) is rendered as ‘who the fuck knows why’.

In more nuanced language, the work would be just as unsettling. Latin American literature today is full of transgressive female writers concerned with cruelty, Ariana Harwicz and Selma Almada to name just two. Like Melchor’s, their refusal to comfort or spare the reader in any way is what makes them so exciting seen from an Anglo-American panorama where the redemptive and uplifting threaten to kill us with kindness.

Read on: Al Giordano, ‘Mexico’s Presidential Swindle’, NLR 41.