(New Directions, 2020)
As far as Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is concerned, blurby comparisons to the works of Roberto Bolaño turn out to be surprisingly apt. Like Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), a lurid door stopper centered around a brutal series of murders in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Teresa, Melchor’s first major work of fiction to be translated into English takes as its focus the femicide of an outcast figure, known as the Witch, in a fictional village in rural Mexico. The book’s themes should be familiar to any reader of Bolaño—misogyny, drug abuse, sexual violence, poverty, and homophobia stud the pages of Hurricane Season, contributing to the book’s miasmatic and, at times, apocalypitc atmosphere. As in 2666, a cataclysmic judgment seems to be gathering on the horizon, promising, if nothing else, a leveling of the world as it is.
And yet, Melchor’s treatment of her subject doesn’t ring perfectly of Bolaño, if only because, at their heart, Bolaño’s most resonant works thrum with a Kerouacian thirst for hipness—the structural fragmentation of The Savage Detectives (2007) is a mirror of the bohemianism that drives the story forward, while the sleek, Lynchian, neo-noir atmospherics of 2666 approximate the anhedonia attendant to finding oneself lost in a ramifying fractal of violence. There’s a certain cold rationalism pervading 2666, which isn’t really surprising given the unbearable task Bolaño set himself. To flesh out a concordance of violence is to provide a valiant service, while at the same time butting up against the ultimate emptiness of the product. In a sense, Bolaño’s magnum opus is a book designed to exhaust not just the reader, but the text itself.
Hurricane Season seems instead to actively point up the thorniness inherent in describing Latin American works of fiction, especially those thematically concerned with violence, as in some way mythological—as though any acts of brutality described are necessarily allegorical, or reflective of some deep-seated cultural tendency. (This trend, of course, is a bit of a holdover from the days of magical realism, which was often employed to limn institutional violence obliquely.) It’s easy to spot an anxiety about this in Latin American fiction written at the end of the 20th century. 2666, for instance, almost seems to flout, in its sheer unforgiving insistence and lack of adornment, the possibility of an allegorical meaning. In its maximalism, we can sense Bolaño attempting to prove the senselessness of a hermetic approach to violence—the excess of symbols and signs thrown off by the novel’s detective work align into nothing, produce no meaning, and instead only serve as a descriptive intensifier of the violence in question.
Melchor’s text takes a different tack, approaching mythology through the lens of deconstruction. Obsessive and gothic in the vein of another contemporary writer, Samanta Schweblin, Hurricane Season is, just like Schweblin’s work, grounded not in a sense of archaic or timeless violence, but in the precarities of life in the 21st century. (Schweblin’s Fever Dream, for instance, presented a cautionary ecological parable in the form of a febrile Jamesian psychodrama.) Melchor’s Mexico is one where lives are ravaged not just by drug wars but by free trade agreements that send whole populations shuttling to organize themselves around the factories that spring up seemingly at random; where porn addiction can corrupt the mind and buttress young men’s growing homophobia; where the primary forces of destruction are, more often than not, economic.
At the center of it all, of course, is the murder. The Witch occupies an uncertain position in the community of La Matosa, halfway between caretaker and bugbear—she performs herbal abortions for the local women, while at the same time she’s treated as a cautionary tale, safely abstracted away in her haunted house, for the community’s children. In fact, the progression of the novel often seems to read as a gradual process of demythologization, with Melchor’s visceral realism flensing away the dead layers of superstition that surround the Witch. As the book moves forward, we learn that the Witch isn’t so mysterious and withdrawn as rumor might have it, that she is in fact deeply integrated into the community around her—a trans woman, she holds parties in her basement, where the local gay community gathers illicitly. Ultimately, it’s the teasing out of the complex interconnections in this subculture that occupies the book’s focus.
Structured as an interrogation of community, Hurricane Season leaps off from the Witch’s death as the villagers involved all have their say, contributing piece by piece to a churning chorus of unreliable narration, composed of equal parts rumor, speculation, fear-mongering, and finger-pointing. As the pummeling torrent of prose rushes forward, it runs over Melchor’s characters like an avalanche, incorporating the depths of their personalities—their speech patterns, their hopes, their loves, and (more frequently) their hates. Vitriolic, ribald, and brimful of expletives and slurs, the language trundles onward like a black sludge, a punishment to read.
Though the narration swarms parasitically around the book’s characters, adopting their language and tone, there’s a manic energy to the writing that seems always to interfere, holding the characters at bay and preventing them from taking full control of the narration. The slinking of Melchor’s sentences feels like a vision of the obsessive chains—of personality, of circumstance—that bind her characters to their fates. The way the writing rolls and churns, accreting clauses and voices, manages to decenter the characters’ perspectives. In this sense, Hurricane Season can often read like a bar-room conversation run amok, a hurly-burly convocation of wrathful voices, with one notable exception. Interestingly, we never hear the Witch speak, so that in the end the book enacts structurally its central metaphor—the Witch is imprisoned by the perspectives of those around her, a cyclone of judgments and opinions that entrap and impale.
Beyond the vatic intensity of the prose, Melchor’s style is marked by its feverish distortions. In the book’s first section, the Witch’s corpse, discovered in a ditch, “float[s] among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.” Hallucinatory flashes like these buttress the prose, leaping out from a communal psyche and suggesting the multiple interpretive layers that the book’s descriptive data are strained through—there’s a religious-mythical background that hauntifies everything, heightening the stakes, so that every crisis seems a matter of damnation, of mortal sin.
A chapter told from the perspective of Norma, a thirteen-year-old girl sexually abused and impregnated by her stepfather, Pepe, demonstrates some of the strengths of Melchor’s flexuous prose. After a failed abortion induced by the Witch, Norma is taken to the hospital, where, in a moment of lucidity, she examines her body:
a red, scalped pubis which didn’t remotely resemble her own, and she couldn’t believe that all that flesh down there belonged to her, all that yellowish, pimply flesh that resembled the skin of the dead, gutted chickens in the market … it wasn’t a lack of will that stopped her from flying out of the room at the first opportunity, even if she was butt naked, and even if the breeze wafting in through the door made her shiver and set her teeth chattering, a breeze that was warm, sticky even, but to Norma—who was running a fever—it seemed as glacial as the wind that came down at night from the mountains surrounding Ciudad del Valle, the bluish rock mass covered in pines and chestnut trees, which, one February 14, a few years earlier, Pepe had taken them to see… .
What’s interesting about Hurricane Season is that its prose comes with a built-in metaphor—the torturous swirl of narration is, of course, reminiscent of a hurricane. But this to-hand description slightly obscures the careful mechanisms at play in the writing, the way that pebbles of thought fall and in their falling activate other memories that carom off at odd angles, a sort of landslide of association. Hence, we witness Norma’s investigation of her body, her subsequent estrangement from it, and her feverish misinterpretation of a breeze, which draws her back, miraculously, into a childhood memory of snow.
Just as Norma is chained to her corrupted body, the book’s other characters seem trapped in loathsomely ill-fitting self-images. Brando, a machismo-addled teenager, rages against his growing attraction to his friend Luismi, spiralling through razorous circuits of self-loathing, while Luismi himself listlessly plays out a savior narrative with Norma, vowing to marry her even as he cavorts in the village’s underground gay community. Luismi’s involvement with the Witch gradually emerges as the book’s central drama when, towards its end, we’re allowed access to the Witch’s basement, a sordid nightspot “where the Witch held her notorious parties; a room with armchairs and speakers and even disco lights.”
The Witch’s basement functions as a sort of nocturama, an inverted, night-time world where the village’s outsiders are allowed to gather freely. The Witch dresses up in “shiny colorful wigs and all sorts of costumes” and sings songs “from the local cheesy radio station” on a makeshift stage at the back of the room, “surrounded by disco mirrors.” It’s here as well that Luismi takes to the stage, “without anyone saying a word, without anyone making him do it,” and, “his eyes barely open and his voice gravelly from all the aguardiente and cigarettes,” sings beautifully, a sudden chanteuse. There’s a startling sense of release in Melchor’s descriptions of the basement, while at the same time, as a set piece, it serves as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the inaccuracies of superstition. The Witch’s dungeon—the hidden covert where she secrets away her stolen children—turns out to be a clandestine club, while the mushrooms the townspeople assume she gathers for her potions are, in fact, consumed as hallucinogens.
The book closes with a section from the perspective of an undertaker who’s presumably burying the body of the Witch. As he places the bodies of the recently perished down into the soil, he speaks with them, promising them release. “The rain can’t hurt you now, and the darkness doesn’t last forever,” he explains. “See there? See that light shining in the distance? The little light that looks like a star? That’s where you’re headed, he told them, that’s the way out of this hole.” It’s a touching moment of quietism after the foregoing tempest, and one that seems to signal the need for a minor spiritualism at the book’s close. Or perhaps it’s simply a reminder that there exists a branch of superstition—divested of angst, untouched by death—that makes life something bearable, a premonitory dream.