Guilty Associations

Paradais by Fernanda Melchor. Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes. New York: New Directions. 128 pages. $20.
The cover of Paradais

I spent the last days of 2019 with family in a Panamanian duplex, across the street from a “village” of high-end apartments where men worked the yards. Fernanda Melchor’s new novel, Paradais, takes place at a Mexican luxury development that shares the Panamanian complex’s name: Paradise. The coincidence is banal, if illustrative. “Páradais,” the phonetic rendering of an English word, is a clichéd, empty signifier of colonial “luxury,” sort of like an American apartment complex called “Royal Glen” or “High Manor.” But Melchor’s novel owes less to the unimaginative naming conventions of developers than to its chief intertext: José Emilio Pacheco’s 1981 novella Battles in the Desert, the classic tale of a Mexican boy who falls for his best friend’s mother. That boy’s “first passion” for Mariana “hits him like a stab wound out of nowhere,” Melchor writes in an afterword to a recent edition of the book. Paradais delivers that stab wound to Franco Andrade, the teenage Paradise resident obsessed with his neighbor, Señora Marián de Maroño, mother of two and married to a rich bald guy with a TV show.

Pacheco’s novella depicts Mexico City’s incipient “North Americanization” in the wake of World War II, under then-president Miguel Alemán, whose fictive right-hand man is the supposed father of Mariana’s child Jim. This elusive father figure sets the stage for Pacheco’s indictment of Alemán; Jim’s supposed father “earned millions every time the president sneezed: on contracts here, there, and everywhere; on land deals in Acapulco; import and construction permits; on authorizations to set up subsidiaries of North American companies . . . on large tracts of land bought for centavos per meter weeks before the announcement of a new road or development project that would increase their value ten-thousandfold.” Amid such rapacity, the irony of the narrator’s forecast is not lost on us: “Universal well-being and abundance were predicted for the unimaginable year 2000. . . . Machines would do all the work. Streets full of trees and fountains, traversed by silent, smog-free vehicles that would never collide. Paradise on earth. Utopia finally achieved.”

Basically, Battles in the Desert took a cryogenic nap and woke up post apocalypse as Paradais. In Melchor’s novel, “North Americanization” has gone Super Saiyan even in the so-called outpost that is Veracruz. The afore-buzzed-about “utopia” has proven to be nothing but a cruel joke: streets pot-holed, traversed by narcos who hijack taxis and rear-end motorcyclists to steal their bikes. A white Grand Cherokee, Lycra shorts, American nicknames for the kids, “a grotesque display of tastelessness actually encouraged by the Maroños, who the fuck knows why when they didn’t have a gringo gene between them.” A hard drive stuffed with porn to which Franco “fatboy” Andrade tugs his “little stiffy” (chorizo tieso), the fingers stubby and covered in cheese powder, the urethra burning, the mind filled with fantasies of Señora Marián. What machines? Paradise employee Polo, Melchor’s protagonist, does all the work, long back-breaking hours of it in the hot sun getting paid jack shit by that idiot boss Urquiza, then staying after to get wasted in secret with Franco at the decrepit mansion nearby, even though it’s haunted by “the Bloody Countess, the woman who had ordered the house to be built back in the time of the Spaniards and who the estuary dwellers had beaten to death for her depraved, diabolical ways.” (One need not be familiar with the “Witch” of Hurricane Season to know just how suspect this cause of death is.) Only once his family is asleep will Polo bike home, drunk in the dark, to the bumfuck city of Progreso.

Melchor keeps her characters on a tight, miserable leash—they are desperate for a way out. Norma of Hurricane Season, thirteen years old and pregnant by her stepfather, flees Ciudad del Valle, where she grew up in a room “a stone’s throw from the bus station: a single room with no partition walls, a cinder block and cement box in the shadow of a five-story building that robbed them of every last drop of the sun’s warmth,” for Puerto, where she plans to “walk along the same beaches she’d visited with her mother until she found the enormous outcrop to the south of the city, and then climb to the top of that great rock to dive into the dark, choppy waters down below to bring an end to it all.” Polo of Paradais—“he wanted to be free, free goddammit”—is no exception, though we’ve left behind the Yoknapatawpha-esque fictional village of La Matosa, where material decay precedes the spiritual, and entered the posh world of the fraccionamiento, where moral rot is concealed beneath the glossy veneer of opulence. Polo is a teenage dropout with a thirst for drink, like his grandfather, who’s dead. Polo might as well be, now that his mother has forced him to be the family breadwinner. She’s busy caring for Polo’s cousin Zorayda, who’s pregnant with what he secretly fears is his own child. As for his cousin Milton, practically a big brother to him, well, that guy has been swept away by the cartel, and won’t answer the phone.

Polo’s last hope for a way out is Franco, whom he befriends by chance while working a birthday party for the Maroño family on an evening he and Franco have both been humiliated by them. Franco’s humiliation comes in the form of almonds, which the Maroños’ kid Andy and his teenage friends chuck at Franco’s face all evening. Polo’s comes in the form of a small manila envelope: the overtime, plus tip, that Urquiza always cheats him out of, slipped into his pocket by a smiling Señora Marián while he skims the pool. Polo is insulted by the cash as much as by its delivery: “And why the hell hadn’t she just handed him the money like a normal person? Was she afraid Polo would make her dirty, that he’d infect her with his poor, hick ways? Did the bitch really think she could buy him?”

Franco can buy him (he supplies the aguardiente), and Polo hates him for it. To Polo, Franco is “always alone, always dragging his feet, with that formidable belly of his, that rosy face covered in whiteheads and those blond curls that made him look ridiculous, like an overfed cherub; a monstrous man-child whose soulless eyes only lit up when they hit upon Maroño’s wife.” Polo tells himself he’s only sticking around for the booze, but his scorn betrays another motive:

Polo always resisted the urge to look at her . . . he always overcame the involuntary twitch he felt in his neck, the almost mechanical pull that demanded he turn his head in the direction of that pert ass as it bounced around the development, mainly because he didn’t want anyone—not her, and not her husband or Urquiza either, but especially not that bitch—to catch him looking at her.

For all his mockery of Franco, one thing ties Polo to him: desire for Señora Marián, which, stifled, becomes hatred. Franco’s sexual fantasies—which he divulges to Polo at great length in Melchor’s acidic free-indirect prose—give Polo the pleasure of vicariously indulging his own. At the same time, Polo congratulates himself for his moral superiority over a kid who, thanks to his class privilege, is actually able to consort with Señora Marián, if only under the pretense of neighborly friendliness. It is no wonder, then, that Polo complies with the plot hatched by the increasingly obsessed Franco: the latter will have Señora Marián—“it was he who reached the conclusion that he’d have to do it by force”—and Polo will have the Grand Cherokee, chock-full of the Maroños’ jewelry, an admission ticket, he imagines, to Milton’s creed. Except Milton has already said that he won’t let Polo join the cartel—so what is he really doing it for? Not even Polo knows: “Why not? Why the fuck not? Nothing made much sense anymore, he really couldn’t give a fuck. At the end of the day, why should he care what happened to that slut and her unbearable family.”

Like Munra of Hurricane Season, Polo is an accomplice to a violent crime who assuages his guilt by telling himself that he is not the one who has committed it, even if his participation has made it possible—which is to say, even though he has. “He had nothing against [the Maroños] personally and zero intention of killing or raping anyone,” he tells himself. “No one could pin anything other than robbery on Polo, and when they came asking questions, he’d tell them the truth: that it was all fatboy’s fault.” But Melchor makes clear the extent of his delusion: the scene of the crime is not so cut and dry. Munra was able to avert his eyes from the violence he enabled, whereas Polo is called upon to assist in it: “help me tie her up, this is harder than I thought, she won’t let me do anything.” And he is called upon to stop it, too: “Polo, help us, you don’t have to do this, Polo, I know you’re a good man, help us, please.

Paradais is a novel of rape. To the extent that it is told from the perspective of an accomplice who also desires the victim, it is a novel of vicarious rape. This is one of its great horrors—that Polo, who initially believes himself uninterested in causing harm to anyone, can, in the moment of the crime, privately scold Franco not for his cruelty, but for his inefficiency: “what was he doing fucking wasting time like that! Why didn’t he hurry up and fuck her so they could get out of there?”

Melchor has spoken of wanting to avoid the “pornographic” in her depictions of violence—and, like Marlon James, of being willing to risk doing just that, so fundamental is it to her vision of human life: “violence is present in all the human interactions.” She has set herself a tall task with Paradais. With Hurricane Season, Melchor adopted a spiraling structure that made its central victim (and its central perpetrator) the eye of the storm. But her new novel follows the alienated Polo on his arrow-straight path to violence. Melchor confines us to his perspective, delivered in a claustrophobic third-person soliloquy, chronological but inflected with hindsight, broken up into three acts—and, in Sebaldian fashion, occasionally interrupted by the monologues of other characters. Those monologues notwithstanding, our understanding of the other characters is limited by Polo’s bitter worldview: his mother is oppressive, his cousin “predaceous.” He does not lay himself bare; he sheaths himself in cloaks of defense. The only other voices we hear from at any length—the only voices Polo lets in—are those of Franco and Milton, the latter of whom tells Polo about his abduction by the cartel and his violent entry into narco life.

From the outside, Paradais might sound like a recipe for sensationalism of a sort especially liable to be consumed by Americans, particularly those narcodrama junkies whose pants moisten at the book jacket’s promise to deliver an exploration of the “explosive fragility of Mexican society—with its racist, classist, hyperviolent tendencies.” If sensationalism distorts its subjects in service of fantasy, that’s a dead-on description of what Franco is up to; his repulsive pipe dreams of power and virility are cribbed straight from the videos he binges. But Melchor is not responsible for that distortion, only for documenting it. She exposes Franco’s delusion by miring herself in it. Paradais proves J. M. Coetzee’s point that it is “hard, perhaps impossible, to make a novel that is recognisably a novel out of the life of someone who is from beginning to end comfortably sustained by fictions. We make a novel only by exposing those fictions.”

Melchor explodes Franco’s fictions; his fantasies are a far cry from the scene of the crime itself, during which he implores his accomplice to help, “his left hand tugging away at his dick to save his mediocre erection and his right hand wielding the gun.” Polo shits himself. “I write from a wound inside myself,” Melchor has said, “I try to liberate and name the most awkward feelings that I can find in there.” It is precisely this awkwardness that animates Melchor’s depictions of violence and underlines its degradation. The violence of Paradais is as devastating as it is embarrassing. At the Walmart checkout on the evening of the crime, Franco plops duct tape, flashlights, spare batteries, black pants, hoodies, and women’s black tights (balaclavas are out of season) onto the conveyor belt, “finally adding two boxes of condoms that he took from the shelf next to the magazines and chocolate bars. Almost forgot, he said with a wink, and Polo felt his stomach turn.” Mine turned too.

Bolaño refused to depict the femicides of Ciudad Juárez in his novel 2666, instead portraying their aftermath, and thereby inviting the reader to piece together each crime—or rather, implicating the reader in its reconstruction. Melchor doesn’t go so far as to avoid depicting the crime altogether, but she too distances the reader from its violence by describing the crime with a long list of discrete images and panicked moments. “What happened next, between the hours of three and seven on that Monday morning in late July, Polo would recall as a series of independent, almost soundless instants,” starts the sentence that will carry us along for seven harrowing pages, “the freezing rain falling in heavy, plump drops onto their masked faces; the urge to pee confused with fear as they snuck in through the kitchen door, which, just as fatboy had predicted, was neither locked nor bolted,” and so on. This drawn out, freeze-frame sentence, with its countless gerunds and semicolons, doesn’t force us to fill in the blanks so much as it reflects the crumbling of narrative logic, a senselessness perhaps imposed by Polo in self-defense, so unbearable would it be to understand his place in the causal chain.

If what Sergio González Rodríguez termed the “femicide machine” likes to work in the dark, Melchor shines an inspector’s flashlight on its greasy gears. She does not fix it or throw a wrench in it; she scrutinizes it up close, as if to see if it will malfunction under pressure, perhaps even setting the flashlight down to man the machine herself. Her hands get dirty—but no dirtier than the reader’s, holding the book, laughing at its cruel humor, wincing hypocritically when that humor metamorphoses into violence.

Angelo Hernandez-Sias is an MFA candidate in fiction at Syracuse University. His writing has appeared in n+1 and Socrates on the Beach.