Capitalist Naturalism

January 7, 2021   •   By Julie A. Ward

Hurricane Season

Fernanda Melchor

READING FERNANDA MELCHOR’S novel Hurricane Season is a bit like entering the natural disaster of its title, with sweeping paragraphs, lashing sentences, and scenes of breathtaking ferocity. Sophie Hughes’s formidable translation of the difficult text (originally published in Spanish in 2016) immerses the reader in a world of linguistic and material violence on Mexico’s Gulf Coast.


Melchor’s innovative novel has been compared to the work of Cormac McCarthy and Samanta Schweblin. While these comparisons are valid, it is also illuminating to look back to the novelistic tradition of 19th-century European and Latin American naturalism, a genre that Melchor both extends and subverts. The extensive portrayals of the poor in Hurricane Season hearken back to the way the working classes were depicted in the novels of such classic naturalist authors as Émile Zola. Naturalism posits connections between poverty and heredity, often tackling such social ills as substance abuse, domestic violence, and promiscuity. This social consciousness often includes an implicit critique of capitalism, and Melchor’s novel makes clear how the dehumanization of the worker is linked to the profit-seeking imperatives of corporations.


Zola wrote a definitive manifesto for the genre, “The Experimental Novel.” According to Zola, the experimental novelist seeks, like the physiologist and the chemist, to improve the human condition: “We are […] showing by experiment in what way a passion acts in a certain social condition. The day in which we gain control of the mechanism of this passion we can treat it and reduce it, or at least make it as inoffensive as possible.” There is a certain hubris involved in imagining that a writer can create an environment for social experimentation using invented characters and situations, which can in turn lead to reliable and useful results. But that did not stop authors from trying.


Naturalism flourished in Mexico a century ago, as it was in line with positivist philosophies of the day that focused on scientific approaches to governance. To be clear, Melchor does not (to my knowledge) claim any ties to this tradition, but Hurricane Season’s portrayal of abject poverty echoes the naturalist novel’s biting critique of environmental and human exploitation. Melchor’s characters face desperate situations that are the direct result of late capitalism, whose all-encompassing reach has rendered everyday life meaningless and hopeless. Like the 19th-century naturalist novel, Hurricane Season is populated by characters who find no escape from their desperate circumstances, save for violent death.


The novel’s central mystery focuses on the murder of a figure known as The Witch, whose brutalized and decaying body is discovered in the first scene. Each chapter focuses on a different character, all bound to the murder by some affective tie, and all struggling through their personal versions of the living hell that is life in the small town of La Matosa. The Witch herself was mistreated by her mother and exploited by the community, while other characters endure their own special torments: Luismi, The Witch’s lover, spends his days high on pills; Norma, a child who has run away from home because her stepfather raped her, agonizes after a home abortion goes wrong; and Brando struggles to ignore his homosexual desire for his friend, his mind consumed with tortured fantasies. Zola would have a field day with this crew, but his reformist zeal is nowhere to be found in Hurricane Season.


Instead, Melchor’s neonaturalism is more akin to what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism,” which posits no “political alternatives to capitalism. What we are dealing with now […] is a deeper, far more pervasive, sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility.” Fredric Jameson writes that we can only “imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.” Certainly, Melchor’s depiction of existence under the conditions of contemporary capitalism is apocalyptic: there is no hope for escape, every single character has a price, and all community ties have been destroyed.


In Mexico, at the turn of the last century, authors like Federico Gamboa found naturalism to be a useful tool for contributing to the country’s embrace of progress and modernization. From national sanitation projects to municipal regulation of “public women,” the Mexican government, like many around the world, was working to control the problems described in Zola’s manifesto. Gamboa’s famous 1903 novel Santa: A Novel of Mexico City follows a peasant girl to the capital, where she falls into disgrace under corrupt influences. Gamboa and his fellow Mexican naturalists sought to illuminate the conditions that created social disorder so that they could be eliminated, through the scientific power of literature.


It isn’t only the naturalist themes of prostitution, substance abuse, and daily violence that echo in Melchor’s novel. Her style, too, is reminiscent of the naturalists’ scientific approach, capturing the distinctive local dialect, with its unflinching barrage of obscenities and slang (wonderfully evoked in Hughes’s translation). But where Zola and Gamboa believed that their experimental novels might help produce a better society, Hurricane Season offers only a darkly ironic flicker of hope at the very end, when a gravedigger tells the corpses surrounding him that “the way out of this hole” is a “little light that looks like a star” in the distance. Death is the only escape for Melchor’s characters.


Many critics have linked the novel’s central murder and peripheral acts of gendered violence to the phenomenon of femicide in Latin America. Claire Jimenez, for example, claims that the novel shows how “femicide and violence in Mexico are deeply connected to neo-colonialism,” while Bailey Trela has argued that the text is “grounded not in a sense of archaic or timeless violence, but in the precarities of life in the 21st century.” Indeed, Melchor’s harsh vision of poverty, rife with illicit prostitution, child molestation, and drug abuse, is linked to the characters’ inescapable class conditions, which are rooted in unbridled capitalism.


The power of this extractive system is perhaps most clearly represented by the looming image of the highway. This ubiquitous thoroughfare, which links La Matosa to the surrounding oil fields, produces profit for the capitalist class and various forms of harm for everyone else: narco-trafficking, sexually transmitted diseases, fatal accidents, abductions, rapes, suicides. The highway, when first built,


[was meant to] connect both the port and the capital to the recently discovered oil wells north of town, up in Palogacho, [bringing] enough work for fondas and food stalls to start cropping up, and in time even cantinas, guest houses, knocking shops and strip clubs where the drivers, the travelling tradesmen and the day labourers would stop to take a moment …


Now it is “totally overrun by hookers and hussies who rolled in from God knows where, lured by the trail of banknotes that the oil trucks left in their wake as they made their way down the highway.”


The death of The Witch, whose murder opens the novel, is a clear reference to the gendered violence that runs rampant in patriarchal societies, yet it also affirms a key insight of classic naturalism — that there is no other world, no realm of supernatural possibility. From the start of the story, The Witch and her superstitions are dead. The Witch’s mother, who is presumed to have died in a landslide in 1978, used to trade with the women of the town, bartering food in exchange for the potions she “brewed either with the herbs [she] grew in her vegetable garden or with the wild plants she sent the women to forage on the mountainside, back when there was still a mountainside to speak of.” The environmental degradation that has led to the loss of the mountainside goes hand in hand with the destruction of the social fabric: The Witch put a stop to her mother’s bartering and began not only charging for her services but also imposing interest fees as well. This inescapable economic ideology informs and distorts all of the relationships depicted in the novel; one character’s lover even attempts to pay him to impregnate her. The imperatives of capitalism have colonized all social relations and even the depths of each character’s mind: there is, as The Grandfather tells the bodies he buries, no alternative.


Ursula K. Le Guin argued in 2014 for the power of literature to create alternative worlds beyond the strictures of capitalist reality. “We live in capitalism,” she said, “its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” Despite this clarion call, Melchor declines to embrace futuristic fantasies of a world beyond capitalism. Instead, her novel depicts the impotence of such hopes, even as it shines a powerful light on the damaged lives left in capitalism’s wake.


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Julie A. Ward is a writer and translator from Oklahoma. She is an associate professor of Latin American literature at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, and the author of A Shared Truth: The Theater of Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol.