[New Directions; 2022]
Tr. from Spanish by Sophie Hughes
“It was all fatboy’s fault, that’s what he would tell them,” begins Paradais, the slim but ravaging novel by Fernanda Melchor, exquisitely translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes. In the book’s first sentence, a plan is hatched by a teenage boy named Polo to escape the aftermath of a horrific crime which unfolds one night at the end of a long and feverish summer. Like Melchor’s acclaimed 2020 novel, Hurricane Season, shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and also translated by Hughes, Paradais is a grotesque and unflinching account of individuals who perform acts of violence and the economic and social conditions that drive them to do so. However, if Hurricane Season begins with the body of a dead woman and moves backward in time to solve her murder, Paradais begins with the foreshadowing of an unspeakable act and uses all 128 page to build to the climax. All the while Melchor interrogates whether depraved people can do anything to change their fate or if the pattern of violence in their lives is simply inevitable.
Polo is the new gardener at a luxury housing development in Mexico, called Paradise but pronounced “Paradais” by the employees who can’t “say that gringo shit.” He works hard with no recognition, scooping up dog poop, pruning the shrubs, even acting as the piñata shaker at the young residents’ birthday parties. It is after one such party, after escaping to a nearby river for a smoke break, that he meets teenage resident Franco, an “overfed cherubin,” fat, with curly blonde hair and a porn-addiction. The two strike up an awkward and transactional relationship—Franco supplies alcohol (imported from Europe) that he steals from his grandparents, and Polo brings cigarettes. The two go on nightly benders, drinking until they vomit, and attempt to forget about all of the things that they want and can’t have.
In Franco’s case, it’s sex. More specifically, the desire to have sex with his neighbor, Marián Maroño, the golden-skinned and wealthy wife of a famous TV personality. Franco spends his days leering at Señora Maroño as she sunbathes by the pool, having to, “rearrange his trunks to conceal his little stiffy.” He reconvenes with Polo each night to detail his graphic sexual fantasies about her. Polo doesn’t think much of Franco’s talk. He just wants to get so drunk he doesn’t have to remember what awaits him the next day, namely the exact same thing.
No matter how much or how quickly he drank down on the dock, it was never enough to knock him out, to send the whole world packing, to switch off completely, be free, and all too quickly the precious trance he’d worked so hard to achieve would dissolve into a throbbing headache that grew more intense each time Polo remembered that in a matter of hours he’d be back cycling along the very same road, ready to begin a new day in poxy Paradais.
As Polo bikes to and from work each day, he crosses a river which separates Paradise, with its luxury villas and manicured lawns, from his impoverished home town of Progreso. The river is a constant reminder to Polo of his dead grandfather, another familial alcoholic, and the promises he had once made to build his grandson a boat that would sail down the river. With a boat, Polo’s life would be different. Better, certainly. And if it were up to Polo many things would change. He would join the Narcos and escape from his suffocating homelife and his cousin Zorayda, who is pregnant with a baby that may or may not be his.The majority of the novel takes place in the muddled and angry swirl of Polo’s thoughts, where the same regrets and desires resurface over and over again. Melchor’s prose mimics the never-ending cycle of Polo’s workday, his trips back and forth over the same river, trapping the reader in the same repetitive loop. It is clear from the very first page that something will have to give.
The opportunity presents itself when Franco’s obsession with Señora Maroño turns into a concrete plan to possess her, and with the promise of cash, Polo agrees to be an accomplice. Here I will spare the reader the gruesome details of their botched attempt of rape and robbery. Though it is essential to add that after masterfully building the suspense, Melchor writes the scene without taking a breath, unleashing a torrent of language that captures the fear and rage of her characters. The violence of the scene is replicated in her language which is filled with abusive and misogynistic slurs. Women are referred to as bitches, sluts, hags, and cows. Paradais is never followed from a woman’s perspective, and their lack of agency and interiority may seem like they are just bodies to be objectified by angry teenage boys. However, even in the absence of their voice, or perhaps because of it, their presence grows stronger.
Throughout the novel, the reader cannot help but question the identity (and gender) of the omniscient narrator who injects the language and plot with nuance. Woven among the vulgar and graphic imagery are stretches of sprawling prose rife with natural imagery and poetic observations about the natural world. The reader never learns who the narrator is, or has enough information to piece together their identity. Though perhaps Melchor is injecting herself into the narrative, adding nuance, and complicating the idea that women in Paradais don’t have a voice.
Women characters seem to lack control on the surface level of the novel, but Melchor’s prose also reveals how influential women are in the lives of Polo and Franco, how their very existence—or lack thereof— dictates the boys’ futures. Melchor often mythologizes women as horrifying beings (and not always human ones) who hold others in the grip of fear. The central character in Hurricane Season is a witch in a destitute village, who even after being harassed, assualted, and brutally murdered by the townspeople, continues to haunt them in her death. In Paradais, Polo is terrified of a ghostly woman called the Bloody Countess, a Spainard colonizer that killed male slaves building her mansion. Legend has it, she still haunts the land where luxury houses of Paradise were developed. “Or at least that’s what the old bags in Progreso would say,” thinks Polo.
In her horror writing, Melchor fuses the mythological and contemporary influences that characterize present-day Latin America. The overt horror in her novels comes from legends the characters tell each other in order to distract themselves from the more insidious horrors of capitalism and colonialism. The horror of dehumanized workers, environmental pollution, and gaping social inequality bubble under the surface of the novel. Just as these legends of witches and countesses are passed down through generations, so are patterns of violence, anger, and abuse which develop when people are trapped in a society that offers nothing but exploitation and cruelty. Polo is an alcoholic like his grandfather, who also he drank himself to death. Franco assaults Señora Maroño, though at home he is the one who endures beatings from his absent father. However, Melchor’s characters are more concerned with being haunted by ghosts of murdered women and not the systemic gender violence which caused these women to murdered. They are convinced that a witch’s curse is to blame for all of their misery and misfortune,.Perhaps, they were all damned from the beginning.
In one of the final scenes of the book, Polo against all odds, escapes the bloody crime scene and heads off in the night back to his house. With no sailboat or even bike to aid him, he plunges into the river and starts swimming home toward Progreso. I was expecting this scene to signify a spiritual cleansing. In a baptismal-like rite, Polo would emerge from the water a changed man, redeemed of his past sins. But Melchor wouldn’t want things to end so nicely. In swimming across the contaminated river that “stank like snatch” Polo loses everything. Though empty handed, he does make it home and wakes up early the next morning to bike to work again. The most eerie moment of the novel is when Polo arrives at Paradise and realizes that the same monotonous daily routines have continued on as if nothing has happened. His boss even sends him to sweep the fallen leaves from the driveway:
It was all completely unchanged: the bridge arching over the river; the sun shining behind the trees, tender and fragrant after the nocturnal rains; the barbed wire crowning the immense boundary walls of the luxury residential developments, glistening with dew.
The bodies (yes, multiple) had not yet been discovered. But there is no doubt that when they are, most likely by an unexpecting staff member, Polo will play dumb. He needs the job and the money that will let him flee. And so the cycle continues. He comes up with an excuse: It was all fatboy’s fault.
Rose Bialer is from San Francisco, California and currently lives in Madrid. She is the Assistant Interviews Editor at Asymptote. Her book reviews have been featured in Rain Taxi, The Kenyon Review Online, and Action Books Blog.
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