In the Tongue a Knife, in the Knife a Tongue: On Fernanda Melchor’s “Paradais”

By Lowry PresslyMay 23, 2022

In the Tongue a Knife, in the Knife a Tongue: On Fernanda Melchor’s “Paradais”

Paradais by Fernanda Melchor

THERE IS MUCH in the literary culture of the United States that might be called unusual or disconcerting. Consider, for instance, the form of praise I have come to think of as “the inquisitor’s blurb.” This is when critics, readers, friends, and former teachers praise a book with the sort of language more typically found on warning labels and in accident reports: a “scathing indictment,” “blistering prose,” “scalding debut.” When I am encouraged to pick up a collection of stories or poems by the promise that they will score, scorch, flay, devastate, or destroy me, I wonder if I’m the only one who still gets burns and blisters. And I recall from my days tamping fence posts how quickly what is blistered grows callused. Of course, I understand that these are metaphors, not meant to be taken literally. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot or should not take them seriously. That we so readily and — out of charity to our nation’s writers, I must assume — unthinkingly resort to the language of violence to describe aesthetic achievement is certainly a fact worth pondering.

It is no coincidence that a culture in which “scathing” can function as a term of praise is also one perpetually worried about the symbolic violence of language. Nor should it come as any surprise that the books most frequently identified as actually dangerous are those that threaten to upset readers’ confidence in the rightness of their moral vision. Recent right-wing efforts to remove books by Black and queer authors from school curricula make for an easy case in point, such as when Tennessee parents sought to keep students from reading Ruby Bridges Goes to School because “its mention of a ‘large crowd of angry white people who didn’t want Black children in a white school’ was too harsh and […] didn’t offer ‘redemption’ at the end.” Without drawing false equivalences, we might also think of those left-liberals who take a strong stance against the real harm that words can do yet have no problem praising literature in the language of violence. Maybe I’m wrong. Still, whenever I encounter some version of the encomium “this book shattered me,” its meaning is almost always the opposite: that the book in question actually reinforced the reader’s sense of the correctness of their moral vision, if perhaps with great power or eloquence. The easy coexistence of moral certainty and hypocrisy, the casual celebration of violence, and the essential subservience of both to the demands of the marketplace are some of the features by which we can recognize this culture as authentically US American.

Now and then, however, a book like Fernanda Melchor’s novel Hurricane Season (2017) appears on this scene of fatuous sloganeering to remind us that beneath the hollow language of violence used to shift units lies an abyss of actual violence, suffering, horror, and exploitation, where people really are shattered, all the time, by one another and by the economic system that birthed the blurb; that the laudatory idiom of violence doesn’t just cover the world of actual hurt but emerges from and sustains it; that we ourselves are made of that language and are therefore neither immune to its force nor insulated from blame. Like a Bruegel painting of a femicide composed in the secret rhythm of thought, Hurricane Season sent a shock through the world of Spanish letters and, to a somewhat lesser extent, through Anglophone readers as well. In addition to its critical success, the book was a surprising best seller in Mexico — imagine everyone’s aunties reading Closer or Blood Meridian hot off the presses — and Sophie Hughes’s English translation was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, among other awards. It is already one of the major novels of the century whose stature will only grow with time.

Now Fernanda Melchor is out with another novel. It is called Paradais, also translated by Hughes and published by New Directions, and I expect it will further solidify the author’s status as one of the most original and challenging voices in world literature today. It is her third novel and fourth book, though only the second to be translated into English — the others are her debut novel, Falsa liebre (2013), and the nonfiction crónicas of Aquí no es Miami (2018). Paradais follows and departs from the formula that made Hurricane Season such a success. The baroque prose style remains, if somewhat tamed and with paragraph breaks inserted here and there. So too the atmosphere of violence, the setting around the city of Veracruz, the children in a loveless world of domination and pain, the sense of no exit, the incest, pornography, blood, domineering mothers, absent fathers, the narcos coming in — you get the idea. Paradais is, however, a good deal slimmer and more straightforward than its predecessor. It has the simplicity and inevitability of classical tragedy, which makes it perhaps harder to read than Hurricane Season, if easier to follow.

It might be more fitting to call Paradais a novella in the distinguished Mexican tradition. It is a fairly short book (128 pages) centered on a single incident: the rape and murder of a well-to-do woman and her family by her teenaged neighbor and gardener. There is little plot to speak of aside from this event, which is confined to a harrowing eight-page sentence near the novel’s end, and the buildup to it. The rest of the book is concerned primarily with immersing readers in the inner lives of the two perpetrators.

The neighbor is Franco Andrade, although the novel’s acerbic narrator prefers to call him “fatboy.” (In Spanish he is called “el gordo,” along with a slew of other slurs in the vein of “the disgusting pig” and “the oozing cherub.”) Franco is the son of a prominent lawyer, although he lives with his grandparents in an affluent suburb of Veracruz in a gated community called Paradise. He is a sort of premature incel, one of those latchkey kids with an internet connection who learn all they know about relations between the sexes from pornography, which has left him with an impatient sense of entitlement whose mixture of misogyny and consumerism will be all too familiar to contemporary readers. The depiction of Franco is overwhelmingly grotesque, both physically and psychologically. To give an example: the novel begins with an extended masturbatory sequence in which we are made to attend closely to Franco’s oozing pimples, his fingers slimed with Cheeto dust and semen, and his various pornographic fantasies about his neighbor and eventual victim, Señora Marián de Maroño. Although the narrator’s bitter sarcasm opens a door for laughter, the scene itself is so long and so intensely disgusting that the reader is left wondering whether he ought to run through that door or slam it shut. The discomfort and ambiguity of this feeling is, no doubt, the point.

The other boy, the gardener, goes by Polo. Polo comes from an impoverished barrio across the Río Jamapa from Paradise that is called, of course, Progreso. (Melchor takes obvious pleasure in ridiculing the pretentious adoption of English names by the Mexican bourgeoisie; when applying to be the compound’s gardener, Polo’s boss has to explain that Paradise is not pronounced para-di-say, as you would say it in Spanish, but páradais, hence the book’s title.) Although Polo and Franco are separated by the never subtle Jamapa of class, and although Polo likes to think he holds Franco in contempt, nevertheless the pair are drawn together time and again to get wasted on a dock or in a spooky ruin down by the river. Over the course of the novel, we learn a bit about their lives beyond Paradise — the encroaching narcos and Polo’s desire to join them, his history of sexual abuse, Franco’s experience with bullying — but in the end it is all in service of understanding how these teenage boozing sessions turn into planning sessions and eventually into the rape and murder of Franco’s neighbors.

This is where the novel begins — on the dock with a bottle of aguardiente, sure, but also in the moral space where the boys’ unexpected affinity coincides with questions of responsibility, its constant evasion, and the grotesque, deforming violence that saturates patriarchal society.

It was all fatboy’s fault, that’s what he would tell them. It was all because of Franco Andrade and his obsession with Señora Marián. Polo just did what he was told, followed orders. Fatboy was completely crazy about her, and Polo had seen firsthand how for weeks the kid had talked about nothing but screwing her, making her his, whatever the cost; the same shit over and over like a broken record, his eyes vacant and bloodshot from the alcohol and his fingers sticky with cheesy powder, which the fat pig only ever licked clean once he’d scarfed the whole bag of chips. I’ll fuck her like this, he’d drawl, having clambered to his feet at the edge of the dock; I’ll fuck her like this and then I’ll flip her on all fours and I’ll bang her like this, and he’d wipe the drool from his mouth with the back of his hand and grin from ear to ear with those toothpaste ad teeth of his, big, white and straight and also clenched in rage as his gelatinous body wobbled in a crude pantomime of coitus and Polo looked away and laughed feebly …

Locker-room talk. For US readers, it isn’t hard to hear fatboy and think Donald Trump. Everyone in the world knows how that laughter sounds.

Melchor got the idea for Hurricane Season from a brief news report about a woman’s body found in a canal. Paradais likewise responds to the ongoing crisis of violence against women and girls, although it also draws on another, seemingly disparate current of Mexican life, something more like cultural heritage than current events. The novel takes its epigraph and basic narrative structure from one of the most beloved works of Mexican fiction, José Emilio Pacheco’s Las batallas en el desierto (Battles in the Desert, reissued in 2021 by New Directions in a translation by Katherine Silver). Pacheco’s novella is also a tale of two boys, of the force of class difference and the place of Mexico in a globalizing word. But above all, it is the story of an adolescent’s obsessive love for an older woman, the mother of one of his school chums. And yes, both Pacheco and Melchor, in her afterword to the reissue, insist on calling it love and not mere obsession or lust — tragic, impossible, humiliating, but love nonetheless.

Pacheco’s novella makes an excellent companion (or tonic) to Melchor’s. It is a tale of great beauty about the tragic acceptance of limits told in tense, deceptively simple, limpid prose — in many ways the perfect opposite to Paradais. Yet Melchor is at pains to show that the two books are related. Take the climactic scene of Pacheco’s novella in which the lovestruck protagonist Carlos comes face-to-face with the object of his desire. He has snuck out of school and turned up at the door of his friend’s mother, whose name happens to be Mariana, and now finds himself standing in her apartment, confessing his ungovernable love. “I thought I would die if I didn’t tell you.” Mariana turns him away with a short speech of affecting grace and magnanimity. Carlos begs her forgiveness and leaves with a tragic sensibility of unrequited love imprinted on his heart: a beautiful, impossible longing for what one can never have to match Pacheco’s nostalgia for the lost Mexico City of his youth.

Come now to the present day where, in his endless masturbation, Franco similarly pictures himself showing up at Señora Marián’s house to confess his own overwhelming desire. If readers did not catch the allusion in Marián’s name, they are less likely to miss the repetition of the famous scene from Pacheco, as well as the turn it takes (and where). Let’s drop in here, in the middle of a long, explicit description of Franco’s compulsive onanism:

Franco this time imagining he was alone with Señora Marián on the Maroños’ marital bed, she perched on the edge, Franco standing with his hands in his pockets and his head cocked to one side having just dared confess his secret to her: his longing, his anguish, and the shame he felt admitting it to her, the feeling that he would die if he didn’t give in to his desire soon, while Señora Marián nodded away, sweet and obliging, and held out a slender hand to touch Franco’s penis over his shorts.

It goes on from there, deeper into the clichés of pornography and machismo. Where Pacheco’s novella is, in Melchor’s words, “[t]he story of an impossible love, the tale of desire in its purest and most defenseless form,” Paradais reveals in grimy detail how desire is deformed by a political economy whose greatest good is getting what we want when we want it, where boys and men are conditioned to think that they have a right to women’s bodies, to having their feelings requited. “Have it your way.” Ta madre.

Speaking of which, it is time to talk about Melchor’s use of language, since it strikes me as the most remarkable aspect of her art and what sets her in the highest rank of contemporary prose writers. It is also something that can only be fully appreciated in the original Spanish. This is not to slight Sophie Hughes’s excellent translation. Any translator faces a set of difficult choices, and Hughes, who is one of the very best translators from Spanish working today, chooses well time and again. Rather, I want to give English-only readers a sense of those choices and why they are hard, in hopes of giving a fuller view of Melchor’s and Hughes’s achievements.

Melchor’s novels, especially the most recent pair, are calculated to produce a certain effect in the reader — to shock them into a state of heightened awareness — and this effect depends on at least three elements: the striking characters and images of her stories, the hypnotic cadence of her prose, and her virtuosic use of Mexican slang, peculiarly that of her native Veracruz. Hughes has preserved the powerful effect by conveying Melchor’s images and rhythm but not trying always to match her idiom, which draws such depth and versatility from a limited repertoire of core words and phrases that any attempt to mimic it in English would end up sounding farcical or antiquated without nearing the quality of the original.

English is a language of abundance that offers feasts of synonyms and archaisms to the word-drunk, but — and perhaps because of such plenitude — it contains nothing approaching the slippery polysemy of chingar (to fuck), a word so ample in signification that Algarabía once published a 190-page Chingonario or Fucktionary. The slang of Mexican vernacular draws an enormous variety of meaning from a limited store of elemental words, typically having to do with the body and the nuclear family — mother, father, shit, fuck, suck — and often in ways that reflect a history of domination between the sexes, colonizer and indigenous, and so on. Melchor takes this particular alloy of exuberant vulgarity and demotic creativity and fashions it into an elevated literary idiom all her own. It’s hard to give a good example — I’m no Sophie Hughes — but let me try. The constant reference to fellatio in everyday speech to express disbelief, pretention, error, ridiculousness, and so on (no mames, se la mama, me la mamé, una mamada) provides one of the funniest lines in the book, delivered as a judgment on the bourgeois pretension of adopting gringo nicknames: “si de gringos no tenían nada, puras ganas de mamar por el mame mismo.” The phrase after the comma means something like “being ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous,” which Hughes translates as “the dicks couldn’t help themselves,” nicely retaining the reference to the male anatomy. But of course, neither captures the enormous connotative scope of the original: a deeply angry, resentful expression that delights the tongue and is at once funny, grotesque, pornographic (possibly erotic), derisive, defiantly creative, and infused with a sense of menace derived from a socio-lingual substrate of patriarchal violence. It’s all there, in one little phrase.

By relentlessly piling on common slang to describe the approach and eventual explosion of the physical violence and sex it denotes, Melchor makes us see it all at once, in constant winking multivalence: like a taut ribbon of sense flashing in the wind. When combined with the incantatory rhythm of her prose, the effect is a force field of language and text, sound and image, history and politics, desire and pain, that really does feel like coming into contact with an undercurrent of human life. It is a marvelous trick of art, albeit a trick in the same sense that a microscope is a trick of optics. I reckon the best judgment on Fernanda Melchor is still that of her contemporary Guadalupe Nettel: “She makes magic when she writes. She activates, like one who knows a secret code buried in our memory, the primitive cadence of language.” Why would anyone who has lived in this world expect that experience to be anything other than overwhelming, violent, frightening, and leavened if we are lucky by a dark sense of humor and brief flashes of beauty amid ugliness and self-destruction?

Melchor is one of several prominent Mexican women writers grappling with the ongoing crisis of femicide in Mexico — others include Cristina Rivera Garza and the journalists Lydiette Carrión and Daniela Rea. But as far as I can tell, Melchor is the only one who focuses on the inner lives of the perpetrators. She has said in interviews that she is motivated by a desire to understand the minds of the killers, which might explain why her books are full of children and adolescents, in whom the process and possibility of becoming one thing or another is on full display. It is an old preoccupation, the origins of evil, and supposedly a fraught one for artists.

The implication in the best writing about the epidemic of violence against women and girls, like that about los desaparecidos, is that the ethically proper starting place is with the victims. To give them a life in letters as cold substitute for the real one that was stolen. In a parallel context, Saidiya Hartman has written powerfully about the moral necessity of rescuing the voices of women disappeared from the historical record. Cristina Rivera Garza has on several occasions tried to do just that, including in a remarkable book about her murdered sister, El invencible verano de Liliana (2021). Roberto Bolaño’s “The Part about the Crimes” (2004) offers a different approach in which the enormity of the body count and the incomprehensibility of widespread sexual slaughter seems to imply something fundamentally unfathomable about evil (“a capricious and childish beast that would have swallowed Heidegger in a single gulp if Heidegger had had the bad luck to be born on the Mexican-U.S. border”). But Melchor seems intent on going where few others dare or wish to go: into the femicidal mind itself. What’s more, she goes in their language, without the protection of a neutral idiom of narration that might at least imply moral judgment and thereby create some critical distance between author, reader, and them.

Melchor has said that, in order to understand how men become killers of women, she needed to approach them in their own language. She has now done so convincingly and with two daring books in a row. It can be hard for a reader to put into words what understanding is gained at the end of this exercise. There is something there, of course, albeit more along the lines of discomfort and proximity than repeatable propositions. We close the book in a complex of exhaustion: aesthetic, emotional, ethical, physical. We are left with a sort of sore muscle of the soul. There are few writers who so effectively bring home the fact that language lives in the body, and that their language is our language too.

There is no catharsis at the end of Paradais, no purgation of bad feeling. Just the opposite: a sense of being mired in the aftermath. The world of Paradais — which, let’s not fool ourselves, is ours too — is a world of perpetual aftermath, where inescapable violence has rendered words like before and after meaningless and catharsis an escapist ploy of sentimentality. Polo knows he will open the gate for the police when they come. The reader knows this sort of thing goes on.


Lowry Pressly is a writer of essays, fiction, and cultural criticism. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where he teaches at Brown University.

LARB Contributor

Lowry Pressly is a writer of essays, fiction, and cultural criticism. He is a PhD candidate at Harvard University.


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