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) turned into willing perpetrators. The governing forces here include deep-seated machismo and systemic misogyny, and it’s virtually impossible to escape them. This is clear in the case of Luismi and Brando, young men thrust into premature manhood by the hardships and the viciousness of their messy lives. Like the men in the novel, they live in fear and awe—or awe produced by fear—of the narcos who rule the area; their sexual lives regularly involve rape (although they don’t call it that), homosexual encounters filled with ambiguity, and, in Brando’s case, compulsive masturbation to images of bestiality and the like. While Melchor’s prose calls to mind “Absalom, Absalom!,” the brutality of her world outstrips even that of “Sanctuary.”
Enter Norma, a thirteen-year-old girl who becomes pregnant after being serially raped by her stepfather, and receives an abortifacient from the Witch. If the Witch’s murder is the engine that moves the novel forward, Norma’s predicament swiftly becomes its center, the eye of the narrative hurricane; a novel that had been about men becomes a novel about what men do to women. Norma has been trailed by men in a pickup truck who call her names, “clicking their tongues as if she were a dog.” But there’s nowhere to turn for help; when she tells Luismi about the men, he worries that one of them is a narco known for abducting girls, and asks her to promise to never “go asking the police for help, because those fuckers worked for the same boss.”
The atmosphere of permanent threat, of constant vulnerability, recalls the fourth section of Roberto Bolaño’s “2666,” titled “The Part About the Crimes,” loosely based on a spate of murders in Ciudad Juárez. But where Bolaño looks at victims from the outside, relying on inventory and reiteration to produce a feeling of numbness that is itself an indictment of the routinized violence against women, Melchor uses her sinuous sentences to inhabit her women and impersonate her men, granting an almost spooky knowledge of their darkest recesses. Throw in her peculiar awareness of superstition (“They say she never died, because witches don’t go without a fight,” we read in the last pages) and we begin to understand what Melchor is after. She isn’t holding a Stendhalian mirror up to Mexican society; she’s dissecting its body and its psyche at the same time, unafraid of what she might find.
Violence against women has shaped Mexican life in recent decades, so much so that a neologism popularized in the seventies has become omnipresent: feminicidio, or “femicide.” The term describes murders in which the gender of the victim is part of what motivates the perpetrator. This concern takes center stage in “Paradais.” Like its predecessor, “Paradais” is a portrait of an ailing society inured to its own cruelty, and employs long paragraphs and supple sentences, always alive to the rhythms of speech. But the new novel departs from the previous one in important ways: it is more contained, less daring, less ambitious; it is, in a peculiar way, more reader-friendly.
Unlike “Hurricane Season,” where the moral misery of the characters is set against a backdrop of material misery, the new novel takes place in an affluent world: a gated community given the English name Paradise (with an irony that seems to be addressed only to the reader) and referred to with the phonetic rendering “Paradais.” The milieu is one of luxury and wealth, insulated from what happens outside its perimeter; in a sense, the gates of Paradais are built to keep out the world of “Hurricane Season.” All borders are porous, however, and this porousness, in the shape of an unlikely friendship, will harrow the supposed sanctuary.
The friends are teen-agers, both outcasts of a kind, lonely and looking for ways to palliate their solitude. Polo Chaparro, a gardener at Paradais, comes from Progreso (another name fraught with irony), one of the downtrodden neighborhoods that surround the gated community. It’s a place dominated by narcos so feared that they are referred to throughout the novel only as they or them, in italics. Franco Andrade, a.k.a. fatboy, who lives with his wealthy grandparents, is overweight, addicted to porn, and consumed by the prospect of having sex with Señora Marián, the attractive housewife next door. The two boys meet in the evenings to drink, with Franco fantasizing volubly about Señora Marián, talking about “nothing but screwing her, making her his, whatever the cost.” When “Paradais” opens, that cost has been paid. In another example of Melchor’s fondness for circular structures, the catastrophe has already taken place and we spend the rest of the novel watching these two misfits sluggishly resort to an act of extraordinary violence. The question, of course, is who or what pushes them in that direction, and the novel in its entirety, a slender hundred and twelve pages, is the only satisfactory answer.
“Paradais” is a study of misogyny. But Melchor is primarily a novelist, not a journalist, and there are no concessions here to any kind of reportorial completeness. We never get to know Señora Marián as anything other than Franco’s object of desire: we never have access to her thoughts or emotions, or get more than a perfunctory look at her private world. The novel stays stubbornly within the vantage of the two friends who plan to attack her; its narrative choices mimic their highly circumscribed empathy. Since they don’t care who Señora Marián is, in other words, the novel doesn’t care, either. 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 to which you can turn in order to ascertain how your fellows spend their entire lives.” We ascertain almost nothing about Señora Marián.
By contrast, Polo’s entire life is laid before us in convincing, even moving detail. Tellingly, in a novel obsessed with decisions and their consequences, Polo is the only character endowed with a past. We learn about his grandfather, an important presence in his childhood, an alcoholic who didn’t keep his promise of teaching Polo how to build a boat before he died. In conveying Polo’s memories, Melchor’s writing alters slightly, abandoning coarseness and profanity and assuming an almost lyrical quality, as if channelling Hemingway’s Nick Adams: