Fernanda Melchor’s Dark Morality Plays

Fernanda Melchor’s Dark Morality Plays

Baroque Monsters

Fernanda Melchor’s Mexican gothic.


Throughout the Middle Ages and up until the era of Romanticism, most literature written in Europe and its colonies was decidedly allegorical in nature: Its concrete signifiers (characters, images, plot points) were understood to refer to abstract entities (ideas, concepts, teachings). The first readers of The Divine Comedy, to take the most obvious example, saw Dante the pilgrim not just as a middle-aged conspirator exiled from Florence and mad with mourning for a teenage girl, but as a personification of the soul in search of God. But in the 18th century, allegory began to go out of fashion. The explicit correspondences between the literal and the figurative began to seem staid, inferior, even boring. In its place, realism and a concern for the unique rather than the typical emerged. This shift did not entirely banish allegory. One could list countless modern examples, both “highbrow” (Brecht, Beckett, Kafka) and “popular” (The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Get Out). But even if allegory has yet to go extinct in Western literature, it has become more and more uncommon.

That is, with the exception of Latin America. There, allegory has continued to thrive. Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude might be one of the most prominent examples, but the same could be said of many the Boom generation’s masterpieces—from Juan Rulfo allegorizing the incompleteness of the Mexican Revolution in Pedro Páramo to Augusto Roa Bastos doing something similar with the dictatorships of the Southern Cone in I, the Supreme.

Today, too, many Latin American novelists carry on the allegorical tradition. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World both invite allegorical readings, as does the work of the Mexican novelist Fernanda Melchor. A crime reporter by trade, Melchor is only at the beginning of an exciting and promising career: She published her debut novel, Falsa Liebre, in 2013, followed by Aquí no Es Miami, a collection of literary journalism from the same year, and her second novel, Hurricane Season, in 2017

Both Falsa Liebre and Aquí no Es Miami showed great promise, but it was Hurricane Season that established her as one of the most important writers working in Spanish today. A polyphonic account of the brutal murder of a transgender witch in a small town on the Mexican gulf coast, the novel was at once a literal murder mystery and an allegorical fable. Composed in labyrinthine sentences that often stretched for dozens of pages and yet somehow remained perfectly legible, Hurricane Season was also a prime example of social commentary: The killing of the witch was a synecdoche for femicide in general. The novel presented a systematic critique of gender relations in Mexico—the witch provides abortions to the town’s women; the main secondary plot concerns a girl’s sexual abuse; many of the male characters have sex with men, sometimes for money, while nonetheless remaining violently homophobic—without ever becoming a pamphlet. Melchor achieved this balancing act by structuring her vehicle (the literal level of narration) according to the conventions of “popular” genres such as slasher horror and the noir novel, a device that makes her work thoroughly readable even if one doesn’t engage in the allegorical exegesis that it calls for.

Now, with her third novel, Paradais, Melchor appears poised to apply her allegorical devices in an even more explicitly political fashion. Translated by Sophie Hughes—also the translator of Hurricane Season—the new book revisits some of Melchor’s signature concerns: crime, misogyny, the tropical gothic of her home state of Veracruz. But while Hurricane Season was epic in scope, spanning two generations and featuring a large cast of characters, Paradais is more focused. Taking place over the course of a few weeks, the novel does not abandon the large scale of her interests but instead zooms in on them. It serves as a morality play about a working-class teenager’s participation in a rich kid’s plot to rape and murder a bourgeois housewife, his neighbor in a gated community called Paradise, or, in the book’s Spanish transliteration, Paradais.

Paradais’s title evokes a genealogy of allegorists that runs from Dante to José Lezama Lima, and from the outset Melchor makes it clear that this is what she is up to. But in many other ways, she departs from her earlier efforts. If in Hurricane Season she seemed primarily concerned with language and form, in Paradais she appears more interested in content and message. While Hurricane Season was often subtle, the new book is blunt, narrated through a free indirect discourse that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to her protagonist’s inner monologue.

Likewise, if gender was the main focus of Hurricane Season, Paradais takes class as its central concern. Having narrowed her wide cast of characters to only a mismatched pair of miserable teens, one rich and the other poor, Melchor offers a study of the pathologies of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat—and does so in prose laced with both high diction and the vernacular. Her protagonist—Polo, a 16-year-old gardener in the community—is the incarnation of this class divide: He works in the community but is in no way a part of it. He is called muchacho, a word that means “lad” but which in Mexico carries ugly connotations of “servant.”

Polo’s antagonist, Franco “Fatboy” Andrade, is also sketched less as a character and more as a caricature. Fatboy is grotesque, almost inhuman—a baroque monster, lust incarnate. His “gelatinous body”—a generous reader will see that the fatphobia is not Melchor’s but Polo’s—is a transparent symbol for the gluttonous greed of the rich: the blind, polymorphous desire to swallow, to consume, to possess; the insatiable need for more that will eventually drive the boy to unspeakable crimes. But the main conflict in Paradais is not sex or gender violence—though those are certainly important—but anger at economic injustice: It does not follow from Franco’s gluttony for fleshy capital but from Polo’s growing hatred of the rich. It is this hatred, enabled by his underlying misogyny, that eventually leads him to join Franco’s murderous scheme—a nihilistic self-immolation that, as we will see later, is the product of misdirected political rage.

Before Polo joins up with Franco to plot a home invasion, he deals with his alienation by drinking; and in fact it is alcohol that brings him close to Franco. The rich kid has money but cannot leave the gated community to buy booze, and so he deputizes Polo, the muchacho, to procure liquor, which he shares with him in long, mosquito-infested nights of bingeing on the dock by Paradais’s river. The two are not friends, though one suspects that Franco doesn’t know this: Polo cannot stand his drinking buddy and puts up with him only because he cannot afford alcohol without Franco. His tyrannical mother—herself a personification of the cruelly optimistic ethic of bootstrap-pulling known in Mexico as echeleganismo—keeps all of his paycheck and spends it to support Polo’s slightly older and detested cousin, who is pregnant. In a twist, we gradually discover that this cousin sexually abused Polo when he was younger and that Polo may be the father of her child.

For all the misery of his home life, however, Polo seems to think that his greatest problem is a labor conflict. Melchor makes this explicit in a passage about the teenager’s contract, which stipulates that his working hours would be “between seven am and six pm with one hour for lunch at midday, and that any activity undertaken outside of those hours would be duly remunerated.” Contract notwithstanding, Polo’s boss expects him to work whenever and for as long as the boss sees fit—and also to perform such humiliating extracurricular services as washing his personal car. Reading about Polo’s resentment toward his boss and the apparent powerlessness of Mexican labor law gives Melchor’s allegory a comic element: It turns out that the gardener of the Garden of Eden is owed overtime pay, like so many gardeners toiling in more earthly domains. Here the novel highlights the almost feudal nature of the so-called “service economy” in Mexico. Even in the most paradisiacal places, one fact stands above all others: Before the power of capital, everyone else, including the state, is powerless.

Polo would like nothing more than to spend his days fishing in the river, or if not, at least to get as far away from that river as possible. But this is impossible. It is the knowledge of this impossibility, the awareness of the extent of his unfreedom, that drives Polo to drink—and, in a drunken stupor, to listen to Franco’s fantasy of breaking into the house of a woman in the community named Marián. Once in the house, he tells Polo, he would subdue Marián’s husband and rape her. If Polo agrees to help him, Franco says, he can steal anything valuable that he finds in the house. This drunken fantasy gradually becomes a plan, one that Polo half-pretends to go along with, at first almost as a joke, then suddenly very seriously—so seriously that he winds up wrapping so much duct tape around the faces of Marián’s children that they asphyxiate.

Given its violent plot, there is little doubt that Paradais is a morality play, a story about the muchacho’s descent into evil. But it is also a searing critique of class, one that seems to espouse a kind of determinism equidistant from Karl Marx and Juan Rulfo. And so we have to ask: Was it all fated? Was Polo’s situation truly so hopeless that this was the only exit? One could imagine a slightly different story, one in which the muchacho’s hatred for the rich led him to activism or organizing of one sort or another—perhaps even into guerrilla struggle—rather than to the killing of children. But in the Veracruz of Melchor’s imagination, there seems to be no place for emancipatory politics. Her characters never consider the possibility that their private disasters might be the product of public injustice, let alone that the answer to those disasters might be collective rather than individual.

This lack of collective consciousness is surprising, given that Mexico is a rather politicized place and Melchor a writer of fundamentally political concerns. But the absence of explicit political action in her books is not a matter of omission; she is making a point. Though Mexico these days has a government that purports to be leftist, the truth is that the country’s social ills, from violence to poverty, have only grown more bitter since the defeat of neoliberalism in the 2018 presidential election. The fatalism of Melchor’s characters, their inability or unwillingness to see their world as contingent, is the product of a disillusionment so deep that holding on to the optimism of the will that proves necessary for any leftist struggle is often impossible. It doesn’t matter whether the president in Mexico City is a corrupt neoliberal or a charismatic left populist: In Veracruz today, as when Hernán Cortés founded the port half a millennium ago, paradise remains the private property of the rich.

In truth, the only organizing to be found in Polo’s town—the only viable alternative to semifeudal serfdom—is organized crime. The gardener is acutely aware of “them,” as the civilians refer to the local cartel. He sees kids younger than himself keeping watch over the town, all proud and cocky with their scooters and their dime bags of bad coke. Polo’s older cousin, Milton, whom the teenager idolizes, has also joined the organization, though not willingly: They kidnapped him and enlisted him under the threat of death. Whatever the particulars of his induction into the cartel, however, the fact remains that Milton now possesses some of the same signifiers of wealth as the residents of Paradais: He drives a pickup truck as ostentatious as Marián’s SUV and drinks the same expensive scotch as her husband. That his new line of work is destroying him psychologically and morally—his first assignment, a proof of loyalty, was to shoot an innocent taxi driver—matters little to Polo, who begs Milton to bring him into the organization. Milton refuses, thus foreclosing the only viable escape route available to him. It is then that the muchacho decides to join Franco’s plot.

Ever the crime reporter, Melchor accurately notes that “they,” like many similar organizations in Mexico, have diversified their business beyond drugs. They rob gas stations, run stolen cars, and in general find myriad ways to convert their willingness to kill into capital. And isn’t that precisely what Polo tries to do when he agrees to help Franco with his plan? Could it be that crime in Mexico, whether the work of specialized professionals or a pair of fumbling teens, is nothing else but an expression of class warfare, the result of alienation, of misdirected political rage? Such is the lesson at the heart of Melchor’s morality play: The injustice in Mexico is so great, the contradictions so acute, that structural violence will inevitably explode in concrete acts of violence. As above, so below: Crime is an allegory of capitalism.

At both the beginning and the end of the novel, Polo insists that “it was all fatboy’s fault,” that he “just did what he was told, followed orders.” At the literal level, this is a transparent and unconvincing attempt at self-exoneration. But at the figurative level—if we look at the situation allegorically; if we replace the vehicle (Franco) with what is fueling it (rich people’s libidinal drive to possess and consume) and read “orders” not as “commands” but as the manifestation of a “political order”—it is an accurate statement: Polo has done exactly what his society told him to do. This obedience does not justify his actions, much less redeem him, but it does complicate the picture. It also highlights the moral conundrum at the heart of the Mexican situation: The perpetrators of violence are responsible for their actions, but we are all their accomplices. How to direct the social energies derived from social antagonisms away from crime and toward political change? Melchor offers no answers—but an accurate diagnosis of the disease is often the first step toward a cure.

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