Author: Fernanda Melchor
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes
Publisher: New Directions
Genre: Literary Fiction, Translations
My mind is numb, and my heart is a mess. The latest offering by Melchor is dark, overwhelming, rustic, punches you in the gut, devastating to say the least, and more than anything else, in a very nuanced manner touches on the class differences in society and what happens thereof.
Paradais is a shorter compared to her previous work Hurricane Season, and yet it doesn’t feel that way. Its 125 pages are packed with unsettling language, doesn’t play to the reader’s expectations, and definitely does not believe in toning it down.
We meet Polo, a 16-year-old school drop-out who works as a gardener in a luxury residential complex called “Paradise” in Progreso, Mexico. The title comes from the fact that he cannot pronounce it, and his boss teaches him to pronounce this way. Even in language, he cannot have a piece of paradise.
Polo is the narrator and all he wants to do is get out. He is not rich like the other teenager he introduces us to – Franco Andrade – who is overweight, addicted to porn, only fantasizes about his neighbour and the ways in which he will have sex with her – who is an attractive married woman and a mother of two.
Polo just wants to escape his overbearing mother, thinks of his dead grandfather, waits for a phone call from his cousin to get him out, and drinks with Franco (whom he calls Fatboy) so he can forget his existence for a while. It is in such moments of desperation, they hatch a plan, which might go either way for them.
Melchor’s writing is not easy to digest. It is bleak, it is angry, it wants to tell so much, and it does, even in so little prose. The anguish, the frustration, and the idea to do better through worse is so ironic and yet the only thing that seems right to Polo. We only see Franco through Polo’s perspective, so at some parts I was also doubting that, but Melchor’s writing convinced me about that as well – that perhaps all Polo says is in fact the gospel truth.
The darkness that runs through the town and into the lives of Franco and Polo is palpable. Most of the novel takes place at night – some also during the day, but that’s when the ridicule happens, the discrimination is made clear, the anger is seething – only to appear at night when drunk and find escape by imagining various ways to find an exit. All of this is conjured through Hughes’ fantastic translation that doesn’t miss a beat.
When Melchor writes about the Mexican society – whether it is the wealth gap and gang violence, she does it as a matter of fact attitude. It doesn’t preach, nor does it seek pity or empathy. What it also does at some point is scary – it gives agency to the naïve, to the fatalistic teenagers who have no clue what life has in store for them or how will it all turn out and make the most horrific choices.
Paradais works on so many levels, and for so many reasons. It is built on the shoulders of toxic masculinity through and through, and you know that world will not last long. The casualness, the most nonchalant manner in which people are thrown about in the book says a lot about the societies we inhabit. Melchor just brings it to fore, and a lot more. Reading this book also repulsed me a lot of times, yet with the constant nagging feeling at the back of my mind that this is the truth – whether I like it or not.