Melchor’s characters are defeated, dispossessed and disenfranchised, never in control of their own existence, always victims of violence, and too often (and too easily) become willing perpetrators. The ruling forces here include deep-seated machismo and systemic misogyny, and it’s virtually impossible to escape them. This is evident in the case of Luismi and Brando, young men propelled into premature manhood by the hardships and viciousness of their chaotic lives. Like the men in the novel, they live in fear and awe—or awe that fear generates—of the narcos who rule the area; Their sex life regularly involves rape (though they don’t call it that), homosexual encounters fraught with ambiguity, and, in Brando’s case, compulsive masturbation to images of bestiality and the like. While Melchor’s prose is reminiscent of “Absalom, Absalom!”, the brutality of her world surpasses even that of “Sanctuary”.
Enter Norma, a thirteen-year-old girl who becomes pregnant after being serially raped by her stepfather and is given an abortion drug by the witch. If the witch’s murder is the engine driving the novel, Norma’s predicament quickly becomes its center, the eye of the narrative hurricane; A novel about men becomes a novel about what men do to women. Norma was followed by men in a pickup truck, who yelled their names and “clicked their tongues like she was a dog.” But there is nowhere to go for help; When she tells Luismi about the men, he worries that one of them is a narco known for kidnapping girls and asks her to promise never “to ask the police for help because these fuckers for worked the same boss”.
The atmosphere of constant threat, constant vulnerability is reminiscent of the fourth part of Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” entitled “The Part About the Crimes”, which is loosely based on a series of murders in Ciudad Juárez. But where Bolaño looks at victims from the outside, relying on inventory and repetition to create a sense of numbness that is itself an indictment of routine violence against women, Melchor uses her tortuous sentences to inhabit her wives and herself as hers to impersonate men, and grants an almost spooky knowledge of their darkest corners. Add to that her particular awareness of superstitions (“They say she never died because witches don’t go without a fight,” we read in the final few pages), and we begin to understand what Melchor is up to. She is not holding up a Stendhal’s mirror to Mexican society; she simultaneously dissects his body and psyche, unafraid of what she might find.
Violence against women has shaped Mexican life so much in recent decades that a neologism popular in the 1970s has become ubiquitous: femicide, or “femicide”. The term describes murders in which the sex of the victim is part of the perpetrator’s motivation. This concern is at the heart of “Paradais”. Like its predecessor, “Paradais” is a portrait of an ailing society accustomed to its own cruelty, using long paragraphs and lithe sentences that are always in rhythm with speech. But the new novel differs from the previous one in important respects: it is more reserved, less daring, less ambitious; it’s more reader-friendly in a special way.
Unlike Hurricane Season, where the characters’ moral misery is set against a backdrop of material misery, the new novel takes place in a prosperous world: a gated community known as Paradise (with an irony that only seems to be addressed to the reader) and inscribed with the phonetic rendering “Paradais”. The milieu is characterized by luxury and wealth, isolated from what happens outside its borders; In a sense, the Gates of Paradais are built to keep the world out during “hurricane season.” However, all borders are porous, and this porosity in the form of an unlikely friendship will shake the supposed sanctuary.
The friends are teenagers, both somewhat outcasts, lonely and looking for ways to ease their loneliness. Polo Chaparro, a gardener at Paradais, is from Progreso (another ironically ironic name), one of the downtrodden neighborhoods surrounding the condominium. It’s a place dominated by narcos so feared they’re only referred to as throughout the novel you or she, italics. Franco Andrade, aka Fatboy, lives with his wealthy grandparents, is overweight, addicted to porn, and consumed by the prospect of sex with Señora Marián, the attractive housewife next door. The two boys meet up for drinks in the evenings, with Franco fantasizing loudly about Señora Marián, talking about “nothing but shagging her, making her his, whatever the cost.” When Paradais opens, these costs are paid. In another example of Melchor’s penchant for circular structures, the catastrophe has already taken place and we spend the rest of the novel watching these two misfits lazily resort to an act of extraordinary violence. The question, of course, is who or what drives them in this direction, and the novel in its entirety, a mere hundred and twelve pages, is the only satisfactory answer.
“Paradais” is a study on misogyny. But Melchor is first and foremost a novelist, not a journalist, and there are no concessions here to any sort of reporting completeness. We never get to know Señora Marián other than as Franco’s object of desire: we never access her thoughts or emotions, or get more than a glimpse of her private world. The novel stubbornly remains in the focus of the two friends, who plot to attack her; his narrative choices mimic her severely limited empathy. Since they don’t care who Señora Marián is, neither does the novel. Melchor must have been aware of the risks of this decision: if the novel doesn’t care, why should the reader? Ford Madox Ford once wrote that novels are “the only source you can turn to to find out how those around you spend their whole lives.” We learn almost nothing about Señora Marián.
In contrast, Polo’s entire life is presented in compelling, even moving, detail. Significantly, in a novel obsessed with choices and their consequences, Polo is the only character endowed with a past. We learn about his grandfather, an important figure in his childhood, an alcoholic who broke his promise to teach Polo how to build a boat before he died. In conveying Polo’s reminiscences, Melchor’s writing shifts slightly, eschewing rudeness and profanity and taking on an almost lyrical quality, as if channeling Hemingway’s Nick Adams: