The novel starts with Polo’s nervous excuses that “[i]t was all because of Franco Andrade,” and thus the vague assurance that something terrible has already occurred. It then takes two steps back, winding its way to a foregone conclusion that is nevertheless shocking — if not as a function of the plot per se, then as a byproduct of Melchor’s vivid, pitiless style. Born in Veracruz in 1982 and initially trained as a journalist, Melchor is now one of Mexico’s most lauded authors. She seems to be fond of the in medias res setup. Her 2017 novel Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season, translated into English in 2020), also set in the verdant decay of coastal Veracruz, opens with the discovery of the corpse of a “witch” in the cane fields. Opening with the fact of a crime is a common trope for noir novels. Yet neither Hurricane Season nor Paradais are conventional mysteries. In the place of a detective’s discerning narrative perspective, Melchor gives us Faulknerian free indirect speech: a roving narratorial eye, indifferent to guilt and endowed with strange poetic affinities. Hers is a narrator that doesn’t so much shift perspective as transmigrate among fictional bodies, recurrently losing itself in graphic vernaculars, dreamlike chains of association, and the rambling cadences of Veracruzano speech.
Paradais is divided into three parts. The first mostly narrates Polo and Franco’s relationship. At least the term “relationship” almost fits. They don’t exactly relate to each other. After hours of exhausting, practically unpaid work at the housing complex, Polo spends his evenings getting trashed with money that Franco steals from his grandparents, anxious not to return home to his frustrated mother; a cousin, Zorayda, whom he might have impregnated; and the “baking, rock-hard floor with just a flimsy old mat” that he sleeps on in the middle of their living room. The narrative drifts in and out of Polo’s disgusted view of Franco as he speaks in masturbatory fashion to nobody in particular, and Franco’s view of himself (or rather, of Señora Marián) as he actually masturbates alone in his bedroom.
The second part flows dreamlike through Polo’s reminiscences: the death of his grandfather, a wordless sexual affair with Zorayda, poetic images of a putrid yet somehow majestic nature — “the subtle, unassuming perfume of the floating islands of water hyacinths,” “an orgy of climbing tentacles” that speaks “in a rustling tongue” — all flickering on the backs of Polo’s eyelids as he drifts off to sleep. At its most remarkable point, the narrative drifts right out of Polo’s reminiscences and into those of his other cousin, Milton, as he is kidnapped, conscripted by organized crime (ominously referred to only as “them”), and forced to commit a murder. In the final part of the book, the prose collapses into something like a list of frantic impressions as the narrative culminates in a horribly botched home invasion, planned by Franco to “have” Señora Marián at any cost, and abetted by Polo with the hope of stealing enough to leave home and impress members of the local mafia.
Translator Sophie Hughes renders this masterfully into English from the original publication in Spanish under the title Páradais (2021). Among Spanish-language critics, Melchor is frequently heralded for her stylistic exploration of everyday speech, especially the vernacular of her native Veracruz. Melchor’s love of regionalisms and colloquial speech makes for a challenging translation. At the same time, there is something remarkably translatable about Páradais. As Melchor has noted, most Spanish-language readers wouldn’t understand her characters if they spoke the way Veracruzanos really do. Paradais is a stylistic illusion of regionalism. The original is already a translation of sorts between orality and literature, constantly playing with the difference between the way things sound and the way they are written. Take, for instance, the phonetic rendering in the title, Paradais, which bears the same mark of translation in either language. It’s worth noting that the Faulkner-inflected style with which Melchor explores such regionalism is also already a product of translation: it is a pan-American voice of sorts, notably taken up and refined by figures in the Latin American literary Boom.
Thus, there’s enough common ground for things to get a little strange in translation, and for this to be interesting rather than unintelligible. Hughes seems to understand this; her translation shines best when she leaves things as they are. Her translation of Melchor’s quotation habits stand out here. Paradais doesn’t use quotation marks; all speech is indicated in the text, or sometimes with italics. This is no innovation in Spanish, where speech-reporting conventions are far more flexible than in English. The product in English, however, is an estranging, heightened awareness of a polyphonic narrative style that intermixes dialogue and description. This is aptly disquieting. Melchor (via Hughes) is not explaining the violence or misogyny of her characters. Rather, her third person narrator is speaking in tongues, serving as a medium for the subject matter. Melchor seems to be right at the scene of the crime, in the linguistic thick of things.
Albeit estranging and sometimes alarming, much of Melchor’s prose has the psychosomatic texture of the everyday rather than the exceptional. One might say that she is giving uncanny voice to a “new normal” ascendant in Veracruz since the late 1990s when liberalizing reformers broke the port unions, the formal regional economy bottomed out, and rival gangs began to contest the lucrative smuggling routes running through the state’s ports. This process culminated in a catastrophic deployment of federal troops that turned the state into a virtual war zone for anyone who could not afford to live in fortress-enclaves like Paradise. Melchor does not simply absorb the qualities of this new normal from the ether and put it on the page. She is drawing from already existing pop culture genres that make up a large part of the collective, hallucinatory texture of Veracruzano normality.
Melchor has said that the opening of Hurricane Season — the discovery of the corpse of a witch — is based on a story she read in a local tabloid, Notiver, about the body of a woman found in an irrigation canal in rural Veracruz. Notiver belongs to a rather unique genre of tabloid reporting called the nota roja, or the “red press” — something like a cross between the National Enquirer and a police blotter in a local paper. In Mexico, the nota roja sells more copies than any other kind of newspaper. The papers hang from clothespins at major street corners in most cities and their stories are ubiquitously shared over WhatsApp groups and Facebook timelines. The genre’s emphasis is photographic: its hallmarks are large frontal pictures of dead bodies and sensational, often sardonic headlines that, like Melchor’s prose, tend to imitate a kind of vernacular orality — “Look Out! Depraved Pervert Stalks the Metro!”
There is a vital continuity between the nota roja and Melchor’s work. Melchor thinks that the nota roja contains “the fundamental subjects of what makes us human beings,” but also that their stories are written hurriedly and with a “sort of revanchist” sensibility. She sympathizes with the desire to see the motives — the truth — behind crimes. In her words, Hurricane Season and Paradais are experiments in what the nota roja could be. She has expressed appreciation for the politics and poetics of nota roja photography in particular, as in her 2018 profile of photojournalist Bernandino Hernández: “Hernández uses the language of light, not to show us a record of reality, but rather a stinging metaphor for today’s Mexico: a faceless portrait of our debacle.” It’s tempting to think that Melchor and Hernández are kindred souls; maybe Melchor even understands her own work a little better through Hernández’s lens.
Melchor and the nota roja are good to think with. They explain each other. In the world of the nota roja, I think one event in particular captures the historical moment that innervates Melchor’s prose: the rise to art-world fame of Enrique Metinides. Metinides was a nota roja beat photographer for much of his life. From the late 1940s to the ’90s, he rode around in Red Cross ambulances throughout Mexico City, snatching images of the dead from the scenes of murders and accidents for a number of local dailies. When Metinides retired, his collection slowly began to draw the attention of local curators. By the 2010s, Metinides was giving shows everywhere from MoMA PS1 to the London Photographers’ Gallery, and even starred in a 2015 documentary, El hombre que vio demasiado (The Man Who Saw Too Much).
At their most challenging, Metinides’s photos are more than manifestations of a lurid gaze; they are complicated reflections on why we look. Metinides often went through great pains to incorporate the expressions of onlookers — sometimes crowds of them — and the bodies of the dead in the same shot. His camera discloses a concourse of gazes, some staring at the body, some head-on at the camera, others out into space. They are complex exercises in looking (at looking) that make the viewer hyperaware of the camera’s insertion into a scene. They neutralize the shock of calamity long enough for some viewers to wonder what they are really looking at.
This is apparent in exhibitions, where Metinides’s photographs are shown decontextualized from the headlines, advertisements for tennis shoes, and images of pinup girls with which they originally appeared. But here’s the thing: Metinides’s photographs passed as tabloid fodder and smut for decades. Complex as they are, their passage from smut to fine art is dependent on a change in context. (He is often aptly compared to Weegee, but maybe a more intriguing analogy is Robert Mapplethorpe.) The fact that people would think to put Metinides’s photographs in an exhibition in the first place suggests a tectonic historical shift, a change in habits of looking. This shift is the context in which Melchor’s prose makes sense.
An analogous albeit distant example is Titian, a famous Italian Renaissance painter. Titian is renowned in particular for his nudes, which modern art historians like to interpret as recondite philosophical metaphors. Historian Carlo Ginzburg has shown instead that Titian and his contemporaries understood and enjoyed the paintings as straightforwardly erotic. Titian made images of naked people because he and his contemporaries liked looking at naked people. Although centuries later they were held up as archetypes of decidedly nonpornographic fine art, the paintings didn’t change. What changed was the context in which people looked at them. History and context have made different parts of Titian’s paintings available at different times. Their movement from minor erotic musings to grand philosophical meditations marks a profound historical change, one in which “fine art” as something separate from pornography and religious iconography came into social existence in the first place.
Similarly, drastic upheavals in Mexican society have made different aspects of Metinides’s oeuvre available — and indeed, made them conceivable as part of an oeuvre in the first place. The period of Metinides’s rise to fame, the 1990s and the aughts, saw the “shock-therapy” liberalization of the Mexican economy, the ensuing dissolution of social safety nets, and a diaspora from failing rural economies on a scale never seen before. This was also a period of putative democratization, in which an opposition candidate would win the Mexican presidency for the first time in 71 years, after which press controls would loosen significantly. Most importantly, the period of Metinides’s rise to fame is the period in which a much-discussed “drug war” began: a senseless conflict that to date has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, sparked by increasingly lucrative cross-border smuggling routes (thanks to NAFTA), a scattering of the old authoritarian regime’s paramilitary networks, and the US-aided decline of Colombia’s monopoly on the global cocaine trade. In this period, deadly forms of violence — public officials found hanging from bridges, explosive turf wars, discoveries of countless mass graves — became publicly visible in ways that they weren’t before.
Alongside the epochal movement of working people from the countryside to international cities, from tentative authoritarian peace to liberal butchery, there is also the movement of Metinides’s work from tabloid smut to artistic metaphor. On the other side of this movement, Metinides’s work seems to open up a rupture between looking and looking. That Fernanda Melchor sees poetic potential here is part and parcel of these recent upheavals, and the core of her work. Such shifts are not just what Melchor is writing about. The movement from smut to metaphor, the rupture between looking and looking, and the daily fact of violence constitute the poetic clearing in which Paradais sits. In this clearing, Paradais is beautiful and terrible.
Marcus McGee is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is preparing a dissertation about the world of crime reporting in Mexico City.