Not Catharsis but Vengeance: The Startling Fiction of Fernanda Melchor

Not Catharsis but Vengeance: The Startling Fiction of Fernanda Melchor

Not Catharsis but Vengeance: The Startling Fiction of Fernanda Melchor

Her novel Hurricane Season burrows into the circumstances of a small-town murder and what it says about a society that disregards femicide.


Earlier this year, police on the northern outskirts of Mexico City encountered a grisly scene: A 46-year-old man, Francisco Robledo, was covered in blood, with the mutilated body of Ingrid Escamilla, a 25-year-old woman, laid out before him.

Activists across Latin America have been sounding the alarm about femicide since at least the mid-1990s. In the past few years, however, the #NiUnaMenos movement (from the phrase Ni una mujer menos, ni una muerta más—“Not one woman less, not one more death”) has increased in urgency as violence against women has reached staggering figures in the Americas. In Mexico, the United Nations now estimates that 10 women were killed each day in 2019, up from seven per day in 2017.

For many activists in the movement, the focus of their ire encompasses not only the men who do the killing but also the society that sanctions such widespread violence against women. Crucially, the question of how to see this violence is at the heart of the demand for justice. In the case of Escamilla’s murder, activists quickly mobilized against the decision by local newspapers to publish lurid images of her body accompanied by headlines like cupid’s fault, which frame Robledo’s violence as a twisted act of love, reducing his actions to nothing more than a romantic attachment gone terribly wrong. In highlighting a single murder, the newspapers obscure the far less sensational—and far more terrifying—web of misogynist violence that envelops women. When tens of thousands of women took to the streets a few weeks later, on International Women’s Day, many of them sang the protest song that has spread from Chile across the world: “El Violador Eres Tú” (“The Rapist Is You”).

The Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor’s recent novel, Hurricane Season, is the story of a woman killed by her lover. At first, the book’s structure seems to match that of a police procedural, with each chapter circling closer to establishing motive, method, meaning. But much like the activists, Melchor burrows so deeply into the circumstances of the murder as to shatter them and raise much more discomfiting questions about the everyday—and intimate—nature of violence against women.

The novel’s language, deftly rendered into English by Sophie Hughes, matches the claustrophobic enclosure of a small town in rural Mexico, yet it crackles with expansive gestures to the outside world. While Hurricane Season’s characters are trapped in place, stuck in repetitive cycles of violence and self-harm, malevolent forces—a raging mudslide, drug-and-people traffickers, the foreign companies who operate nearby oil wells—lurk just beyond the page.

Rather than a simple testimonial or act of witness to this violence, however, Melchor’s virtuosic deployment of slang and bitter insults—of weaponized speech—transforms the violence of her novel and, by extension, the violence of femicide into what Cathy Park Hong calls “an artwork of vengeance.” Hurricane Season is a novel that refuses the call to come together, to overcome, to heal. It insists on being heard.

Hurricane Season is set in the tiny town of La Matosa, which is all but swallowed by the surrounding sugarcane fields that line a valley in Veracrúz, the skinny state that lies along the Gulf of Mexico. The air is thick and humid in La Matosa, its populace marked by the legacy of a devastating hurricane and a subsequent landslide that buried much of the town in the years before the novel takes place.

The town’s destruction, relayed in near-biblical terms by Melchor, did not result in a holy cleansing; instead, the government has taken advantage of the tragedy to build a new highway connecting the recently discovered oil fields north of town with the capital city, Xalapa, south of it. Opportunistic outsiders begin to arrive, lining the highway with cheap bars, restaurants, hotels, and brothels. Hurricane Season’s characters either work in these roadside establishments or they don’t work at all; they are quite literally stuck between one place and another.

The novel opens with a discovery, “the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze.” The dead woman, known only as the Witch, is the transgender daughter of another Witch, a woman loathed, feared, and respected in equal measure by the town’s women, who sought out her herbal remedies and spells responsible, among other things, for having “plucked so many seeds…from the bellies of bad women.”

But where her mother, who disappears in the aftermath of the hurricane, had scorned the men who wrought endless misery upon the women to whom she attended—“all she did was talk shit, call them drunks and deadbeats, a pack of dogs, shameless pigs”—the new Witch wanders the endless fields after her mother’s death, “paralyzed with longing” by the appearance of young male workers. These young men, fueled by the lukewarm beer, braggadocio, and thrumming cumbia blaring in the bars, eventually begin to venture out to her huge, unfinished house, where they “fool around with the shadow who would wait for them each night.” The boys receive not only sexual favors from the Witch but a few pesos too, part of the mysterious inheritance from the wealthy planter her mother lived with.

One of these young men, Maurilio Camargo Cruz—known as El Luis Miguel, or Luismi—is spotted by his cousin Yesenia carrying a body out of the Witch’s house and into his stepfather’s van. When she learns of the Witch’s murder the next day, Yesenia decides to turn in Luismi to the police. Over successive chapters, we are introduced to Munra, Luismi’s alcoholic stepfather; Norma, a teenage pregnant runaway who crafts a fragile love with Luismi; and Brando, whose seething sexual frustration sets the murder in motion.

Hurricane Season is broken up into eight sections, each with a distinct point of view. Yesenia, Munra, Norma, and Brando’s chapters make up the novel’s heart, their stories relayed in a stunning feat of free indirect discourse. Melchor shifts between tones, registers, and tenses effortlessly, striking an extraordinary balance somewhere between pure stream-of-consciousness and chatty conversationalism. The style recalls Thomas Bernhard in its dexterity and vicious humor, but where Bernhard offers vivisections of single characters, Melchor continually breaks outside the confines of individual consciousness, pushing her characters to inhabit, if only briefly, the thoughts and lives of others. The result is stunning, a tapestry of interwoven lives in which even the most righteous character is shown to be capable of enormous cruelty—and of suffering dearly for it.

Melchor’s language hems the reader in with an unspooling, unforgiving wall of text that relies minimally on periods and not at all on paragraph breaks. Her prose unfolds in great looping circles, relentlessly tracking the thoughts and speech of a wide range of characters. She pushes the language to a place of extremity, her astonishing arsenal of bitter insults and slang perfectly capturing a time and place while also serving as a continual reminder of the impossibility of rendering horror and violence into “polite” speech. The “right” words might fail us, and they might fail the characters in the book, but they never fail Melchor.

Hughes’s translation is excellent, swift and sure-footed as it takes on the challenges posed by the rhythm and structure of Melchor’s fervid prose. Yet reading the novel in English, one is reminded again and again of the relative impoverishment of Standard English when compared with Melchor’s loamy Veracruz slang. All the “fucks” and “sluts” and “assholes” in the world cannot possibly hope to match her devastating linguistic pyrotechnics. A “devil child” is simply not the same thing as a “pinche jija del diablo.”

Still, the combined effect in either language is a stomach-churning, molar-grinding, nightmare-inducing, and extraordinarily clear-eyed account of the ordinary horrors men inflict upon women. Melchor refuses to look away, refuses to indulge in fantasy or levity—even in the moments when the novel is laugh-out-loud funny. And lest the far-off reader think the horror is contained to the lives of others, Melchor repeatedly threads the reminders of the long reach of these crimes—and their causes—throughout the narrative. The trucks that rumble past La Matosa and the oil fields to the north ferry drugs and people to the US border and return with shipments of guns. The name given to the local narcos, grupo sombra (the shadow group), evokes the ever-present, haunting nature of violence—how what happens in a tiny town in a sleepy corner of Mexico belongs to people everywhere.

Hurricane Season is the latest work by a contemporary writer to take on the demand to look beyond individual crimes and see instead the broader failures that are killing women across Latin America. This demand has animated the #NiUnaMenos movement since its origin in Ciudad Juárez in the mid-1990s, when hundreds of female factory workers in the area were found murdered or disappeared. The femicides in Juárez—which were, then as now, accompanied by half-hearted (at best) police and judicial investigations—spurred the work of Sergio González Rodríguez, a journalist and novelist whose investigation into the local government’s laughable claim that a single serial killer was responsible for the killings quickly spun out into a much larger and grimmer story that suggested hundreds of killers to match the hundreds of deaths. As Marcela Valdes wrote in these pages, Roberto Bolaño transformed González Rodríguez’s reporting into the dark heart of his masterpiece 2666; the novel’s third section is a long litany of the dead, written in a dry, forensic style that both mimics the tone of police investigations and points to their utter futility when facing a crime of such magnitude and scope.

Both writers’ work deals with the central contradiction at the heart of the murders: The public spectacle of each murder tends to obscure the larger story behind it. González Rodríguez’s reporting led him, over the years, to uncover corruption at the highest levels of the Mexican government, fueled by the drug and arms trade with the United States and the liberalization of the economy under NAFTA. Bolaño’s work led to one of the most celebrated epic novels of recent memory. Both writers, in telling this story, sought to paint a wide, devouring picture, to push beyond the limits of a single case and into a society-wide indictment. Both eschew writing about or identifying with “the killer”—the individual who pulled the trigger or thrust the knife—instead tracing the vast scale and scope of the crimes, gesturing to the horror vacui that lies at the heart of capitalism.

Yet this is not the only way to tell such a story. Susana Chávez, a Juárez-based poet, had long participated in the social movement demanding justice for the murdered women in her hometown. Chávez, in fact, is responsible for coining the phrase Ni una mujer menos, ni una muerta más, helping to name the mass movement that soon spread across Central and South America. And unlike her male peers, whose accounts of the murders led to international accolades, Chávez’s writing and work received outside recognition only in 2011—when she was murdered by a man.

Melchor blends these approaches in writing a novel that speaks to the intimacy of so much violence, to how close it lies. Unlike the newspaper that reports on femicide as a “lover’s quarrel” as a way to deflect responsibility, however, she highlights violence’s proximity to love as a way to show the horror that takes place behind closed doors, in societal and familial structures meant to represent warmth, happiness, love.

There is no peace to be found in Hurricane Season, no relief afforded the reader, no happy ending for the survivors. What Melchor offers instead is something more along the lines of what Paul Celan accomplished in his poetry written after the Holocaust—as Cathy Park Hong describes it, not catharsis but vengeance.

In an interview after Hurricane Season was released in Mexico, Melchor described literature as trench warfare: If the newspapers insisted on describing men who kill women as aberrant monsters, transformed by love into something evil, she would write a book revealing the everyday monstrousness of violence. Noting the fact that a motive is never established for the Witch’s murder, Melchor stated that for many men, femicide is often a form of “rebellion,” a reaction to “accumulated rage” and dispossession. The women, in this formulation, just so happen to be the ones standing nearby.

In the aftermath of the murder, Melchor turns to these women—or at least to the ones who have survived. In Hurricane Season’s penultimate chapter, they gather and talk, “telling stories with one eye to the sky,” reading their environment for signs of further looming violence. The Witch’s house lies empty, ransacked by the boys who killed her and then the police who extracted the boys’ confessions through torture. The only thing left, the women say, is “a searing pain that refuses to go away.”

This refusal to go away, to stay quiet, to disappear, is Melchor’s lasting gift to the reader. It is a reminder that the wound is there and that it belongs to us, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

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