A Mexican Novel Conjures a Violent World Tinged With Beauty

By Fernanda Melchor

The Witch, they say, is loaded, with bullion concealed amid the trash of her squalid estate, itself a misbegotten inheritance from the gentleman whom her mother, the old Witch, seduced and killed. Neighbors accuse her of every kind of corruption. Her imagined wealth draws envy, and her appearance — veiled, hairy, dressed head to toe in black — laughter and pity.

Nevertheless, when nobody’s looking, supplicants come in droves: jilted wives with vendettas, prostitutes with unwanted pregnancies, young men who’ve heard that the local recluse pays for sex. The Witch doesn’t survive their attention. She turns up dead in an irrigation canal, where a story that might otherwise seem folkloric — or yet more misleading, “magical realist” — flowers into something more richly disturbed and psychologically intricate.

In her impressive new novel, “Hurricane Season,” the Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor investigates the deep complicity between fairy tale and “femicide,” a term adopted by Mexican feminists to reckon with the systemic, accelerating and increasingly sadistic murders of women and girls in their country. Hundreds are killed each year, their bodies often mutilated in ways investigators struggle to explain. Some Mexican journalists speculate the women are victims of gangs that use corpse desecration to initiate members and reinforce loyalty.

Last year, the state of Veracruz, Melchor’s birthplace, led the country in such killings. Its most lurid manifestations lick at the edges of her narrative, which allude to such horrors as a girl dismembered on video and cooked into tamales. But Melchor isn’t out to write a protest novel or to offer readers highbrow snuff. Her subject is the inner life of misogynist violence — for both perpetrators and victims — and the collective mythmaking that sanctions such crimes or makes them disappear.

In other words, it takes a village to make and murder a “witch.” La Matosa, where the action centers, is a cluster of cinder block shacks surrounded by cane fields. It’s eight miles from the city of “Villagarbosa,” Melchor’s pseudonym for Veracruz. Work is scarce, and most locals earn scraps of a living from the highway, serving truckers, sugar cane workers, wealthy norteño drug traffickers and engineers bound for the oil fields nearby. They sell tortas and beer, sometimes their votes and often themselves, both men and women caught up in a sex trade that mirrors the extractive industries around them. The fear and hatred of weakness looms over a landscape where no one is more than a misstep away from becoming somebody else’s victim.

The novel is a Gulf Coast noir from four characters’ perspectives, each circling the murder more closely than the last. All share a connection to the central suspect, Luismi, a dreamy, drug-addled ex-lover of the Witch — who, it turns out, is not some dreadful creature but a trans woman who practices traditional medicine and throws clandestine parties. Their relationship serves as a Rorschach test for Melchor’s narrators, whose actions reveal not only the details of the crime but the fears, resentments and unacknowledged lusts that condense around it like a distorting mist.

There’s Luismi’s cousin Yesenia, who spots him by the canal and accuses him of the killing. Practically enslaved to their grandmother — who adores Luismi, the only boy, and beats Yesenia with a wet rope for the slightest infraction — she resents her cousin’s feckless, pill-popping lifestyle, constantly spying on the “little crumbsnatcher” in an effort to have him disinherited as a sexual deviant. Still more hateful is Brando, one of the “park rats” who loiter with Luismi in Villagarbosa. The macho, porn-addicted son of a churchgoing mother, he can’t decide if he wants to kill his friend or have sex with him — a revulsion for his own feelings that crystallizes around the Witch.

The character whose arrival ignites this charged situation is Norma, a pregnant 13-year-old fleeing from her pedophile stepfather in another city. Noticing that she’s being watched by traffickers, Luismi offers her refuge in the shack behind his mother’s house. His mother, a prostitute, takes a shine to the girl, and brings her to the Witch to end the pregnancy. But the abortion lands Norma in the hospital, setting off a chain of misunderstandings and malicious opportunism. What starts as an act of care between vulnerable women ends in carnage.

Melchor has an exceptional gift for ventriloquism, as does her translator, Sophie Hughes, who skillfully meets the challenge posed by a novel so rich in idiosyncratic voices. Rage, anxiety and a contempt laced with carnival humor are the keynotes, whether it’s Brando’s spite for his mother’s church — where women who catch the spirit “writhe around like a fumigated centipede” — or the virtuosic slut shaming of Yesenia by her grandmother, who hacks off her beautiful hair with poultry shears for trying to impugn her beloved grandson’s morals. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself,” she raves, “whoring around and then pointing the finger at your cousin?”

“Hurricane Season” belongs to the Gothic-grotesque tradition of the transnational American South. The novel’s tortured self-deceptions and sprung-trap revelations evoke the stories of Flannery O’Connor, or, more recently, the neuroses of Marlon James’s Kingston gunmen in “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” In an interview about that novel, James spoke about the need to “risk pornography” in the portrayal of violence — and Melchor certainly does. At times, she enters so deeply into the psyche of sexual violence that she skirts the voyeurism risked by any representation of cruelty.

In his posthumously published novel “2666,” Roberto Bolaño deployed a device of alienating repetition to narrate the murders of women in Mexico, clinically detailing so many cases that they begin to lose their tabloid charge. By contrast, “Hurricane Season” is saturated with the language of abuse: men ecstatically molesting their daughters; boys boasting about how exactly they’ll rape a friend who they’ve heard is “ the engineer’s twink”; an irate grandmother who threatens her disobedient girls with the specter of “lesbians with brooms” assaulting them in juvie.

By design, Melchor offers little vantage beyond this world of predators and violently prejudiced prudes. Neither type seems able to decouple desire from extraction and domination. The crime is not an act but an entire atmosphere, which Melchor captures in language as though distilling venom. Sometimes, though, this claustrophobic style breaks like a fever, yielding to flights of mesmerically expansive prose. A flashback to the Witch’s adolescence describes her admiring some young workers in the cane fields: “The Witch spied on them … veil raised in order to see them better, smell them better, taste — in her imagination — the brackish scent of those young men wafting in the air around the plains, carried along by the breeze that made the leaves on the sugar cane rustle … the breeze that, come Holy Innocents, would start to smell of burnt caramel, of scorched earth, and that seemed to usher the slow roll of the last trucks loaded up with immense bales of blackened cane, which disappeared in the direction of the Mill, under that gray, gray sky, when at last the boys could put away their machetes, not even rinsing them first, and rush to the highway to burn their wages.”

Offering such glints of transcendence at the edge of an ugly killing, Melchor creates a narrative that not only decries an atrocity but embodies the beauty and vitality it perverts.

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