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The Part About the Crimes

Fernanda Melchor’s scorching novel of femicide

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes. New Directions. 210 pages.

Modern Mexican literature was born alongside the Revolution.  In the 1910s and ’20s, as armed conflict first sputtered, then spread rapidly across the country, a range of narrative works—testimonials, crónicas, autobiographies, novels—bore witness to the upheaval and suffering let loose by civil war. The countryside figured prominently in these accounts, with novelists like Mariano Azuela and Rafael Muñoz, both sons of farmers, writing of peasants drawn into tumult by forces beyond their comprehension. Their novels helped shaped modern Mexico’s self-consciousness; in these works the country awoke with a jolt to its own poverty and violence.

This first generation’s was a realism of revolutionary witness. Later, as the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) settled into its long one-party dictatorship, Mexican literature took on an array of more extravagant forms. Yet even as style advanced, much fiction remained tethered to the provinces. Some of the greatest midcentury novels—Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Elena Garro’s Recollections of Things to Come—are set in hard-luck towns where history has congealed and time refuses to pass, as old conflicts continue to play out in ghostly and enchanted costume. These books were read abroad as exemplars of magical realism, but their national significance is more profound: for the writers of an urbanizing, politically stifled Mexico, the backcountry was only visible as a memory or as a dream.

Today, Mexican fiction seems to have only a nodding acquaintance with rural life. From Carlos Fuentes and Sergio Pitol through the Crack Generation and young writers like Valeria Luiselli and Daniel Saldaña Paris, much of the country’s literary attention has been concentrated on Mexico City—or redirected abroad. Writers raised in an increasingly urban nation saw no reason why Guerrero or Chiapas should count as more authentic settings than New York or Berlin. Working against an antiquated nationalism—in The Great Latin American Novel, Fuentes observes that the Crack authors wrote knowing that “half a century ago, they would have been burned in the Zócalo”—Mexican literature traded its provincial garb for professorial tweed.

At the same time, Mexico itself began to stagger under the pressures of the global economy. Beginning in the eighties, the PRI loosened its corporatist chokehold in favor of neoliberal reforms. In the nineties, PRI president Carlos Salinas de Gortari presided over a massive sell-off of state assets, triggered huge displacements of agricultural workers by signing NAFTA, and set his successor up for a sharp devaluation of the peso that would send unemployment skyrocketing.  Meanwhile, at the behest of U.S. drug warriors, the federal police beheaded and broke up the Guadalajara Cartel into smaller and more volatile organizations. As these groups eclipsed their Colombian partners, they began to reap astonishing profits, which they used to purchase the loyalty of the local and federal police. In 1993, bribes paid out by drug traffickers totaled $460 million, more than the budget of Mexico’s attorney general. From the heights of power, the country appeared to be modernizing; at the rural fringes, it was clear that the government was dismantling itself, leaving a fissured narco-state in its place.

Melchor’s feverish voice burns away any semblance of journalistic objectivity, but her methods nevertheless arise from her nonfiction crónicas.

When the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) gained control in 2000, ending the PRI’s seventy-one-year regime, they did little to reverse the advance of corruption. Instead, at the behest of the United States, president Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in 2006, setting off a conflict that made the murder rate surge. The ensuing carnage exposed the rot that had eaten away at Mexico’s political and judicial intuitions. With police and soldiers at every level of command—not to mention prosecutors, mayors, and governors—in the pockets of criminal groups, the state marched to war with an army already infiltrated by its enemies. From 2007 to 2014, Mexico’s “drug war” led to more homicides than the number of civilians killed in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The latest government figures suggest that since the conflict began 60,000 people have disappeared, their fates unknown.

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, first published in 2017 and now appearing in a blistering English translation by Sophie Hughes, surveys a provincial world battered by these storms. The novel begins as a mock guerrilla unit of boys, “their slingshots drawn for battle” against an unidentified enemy, stumble upon on a corpse in a fetid canal. Raised amid the bloodbaths of the drug war, it’s no surprise that these children would adopt combat as a form of play; nor is it that the body they’ve discovered turns out to be a woman’s.

The book takes place in the impoverished tropical town of La Matosa. The surrounding region is clearly Melchor’s home state of Veracruz, identifiable by its coastal geography, the presence of the oil industry, and references to certain characters’ Afro-Mexican features. Unlike the titans of the midcentury provincial novel, who conjured their settings through a dreamlike fog, Melchor narrates from up close, pricking at her characters’ nerve endings. Her prose unfolds in long, untamed sentences that barrel down the page like a truck on a dirt road, its engine sputtering with obscenities. (All but one of the book’s eight chapters takes the form of a single torrential paragraph.) Melchor’s feverish voice burns away any semblance of journalistic objectivity, but her methods nevertheless arise from her nonfiction crónicas, vivid accounts of the effects of drug-war violence on the everyday lives of Jarochos, as Veracruz’s inhabitants are known. “The subjective nature of this story,” she writes in the introduction to the collection Aquí no es Miami, “transcends mere anecdote in order to center on the transformative experiences that the protagonists have dealt with.” The same holds true in Hurricane Season, as Melchor pushes each of her characters to breaking point.

Surveying the state in 1984, the journalist Alan Riding wrote that “any residue of local tradition and cultural pride outside the city of Veracruz has been poisoned by the chaotic and greedy rush of the oil boom.” The end of the twentieth century would bring further devastation. Veracruz’s large rural population was hammered by economic transformations wrought by NAFTA, which made the national rate of extreme rural poverty rise as high as 55 percent by the end of the 1990s. The Salinas government also lifted a constitutional ban on the selling of communal lands known as ejidos, a form of ownership that remains more common in Veracruz than anywhere else in Mexico. No longer able to live off the commons, many farmers sold their plots to agribusiness and joined the wave of migrants flowing north to seek work in the United States.

Echoes of this recent history can be heard when Melchor steps back to recount La Matosa’s backstory. In the chatty, collective register of unconfirmed gossip, she tells how La Matosa was wiped away in a landslide a generation ago, then slowly rebuilt “with shacks and shanties raised on the bones of those who’d been crushed under the hillside.” Oil deposits discovered north of town occasioned the building of a highway and a tide of new arrivals, but the promise of jobs soon dried up, leaving behind a streak of “cantinas, guesthouses, whorehouses and strip clubs” servicing the day laborers and passerby. Development transforms the region, but its progress is starkly uneven, and in towns like La Matosa it only brings new, more sinister forms of impoverishment.   

Just as famers were fleeing Veracruz, workers from there and other parts of the country were pouring into cities along the U.S. border, where industrial assembly plants called maquiladoras sprang up to reap the profits made possible by NAFTA. Ciudad Juárez, located on the border with El Paso, Texas, grew notorious in this period for a wave of murders that claimed the lives of hundreds of women. The late journalist Sergio González Rodríguez argued that the city’s economic and political geography had created a “femicide machine.” The new arrivals, many of them women breaking free of their families for the first time, had entered a zone whose proximity to the United States made it a target for crime syndicates and multinational corporations alike. Maquiladora production gave rise to conditions in which “people become dehumanized, reduced to being one more cog in an enormous production machine.”

Melchor takes a certain glee in the horror-movie liberties that the theme of witchcraft affords her.

Veracruz—whose eponymous port city is an important hub for drug trafficking on the Gulf coast—was similarly shaped by the international streams of contraband and capital, and La Matosa represents its ragged outer edges. All of the novel’s major characters lack formal employment; drugs, drinking, and sex are their only pastimes. Gendered killing is woven into the social fabric of everyday life, as fearsome narcos abduct girls whose fates become the subject of lurid speculation: “They’re put to work in the whorehouses like slaves and when they’re no longer ripe for the picking, they slaughter them like lambs . . . they chop them up into pieces and sell their meat to the roadside food stands as if it was a prime cut.”

No longer a phenomenon tied to the border, femicide—defined as the murder of women and girls in which gender can be identified as a motive—has spread throughout Mexico. In 2019, the government reported around a thousand cases, with nearly three thousand more women killed in slaughters not classified as femicide. The crimes behind these statistics—intimate-partner violence, sex trafficking, rape and torture carried out by security forces, serial-killer-style mutilation, and forced disappearances—which have been painstakingly chronicled by journalists like González Rodriguez and Lydiette Carrión, tend to trail off into nightmarish uncertainty, offering little closure to the bereaved. In placing a woman’s murder at the center of her novel, Melchor brings these realities into view.

N. Currier, “Vista de Vera Cruz: Por el Camino de Mexico” (1847) via Library of Congress.

The victim at the heart of Hurricane Season is known only as the Witch. The daughter of a landholding widow suspected of killing her husband, her isolation has shrouded her in mystery and rumor. She serves as a shamanic doctor for the town’s women, working with hexes and cures, and also helping sex workers who turn to her for abortions, a procedure illegal in most of Mexico. This practice turns out to be one of the motives for her murder, the other being her rumored wealth. 

In imagining witchcraft as a kind of feral feminism, Melchor follows a long line of thinkers including Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, who famously described the burning of witches in early modern Europe as “one of the opening struggles in the history of man’s suppression of women as healers.” In Witches, Witch-hunting and Women (2018), Silvia Federici examines the links between European witch persecution and the social changes caused by the enclosure of communal lands—a history with eerie parallels to Veracruz’s recent past. On March 9 this year, a general strike against gender violence that kept tens of thousands of women home from work was organized by a Veracruz-based group of activists called Las Brujas del Mar—the Sea Witches. 

Rather than belabor the point, Melchor takes a certain glee in the horror-movie liberties that the theme of witchcraft affords her. In her crónicas, too, she relishes occult symbols for social ills: in one, she recounts how she mistook narco planes for UFOs as a child; in another, a boyfriend tells her how a friend of his was possessed by a malicious spirit, refusing to believe that what he witnessed could have been a drug overdose. According to González Rodríguez, this type of heavy-metal symbolism pervades the exercise of terror in contemporary Mexico. He sees the elaborate armored cars that narcos trick out for themselves as “the replacement of the real with faith in a symbolic defense based around superstition.” Without lapsing into the fantastical, Melchor grants the Witch a measure of this black magic, making her a figure feared by some and depended on by others. It’s as if she wants to fashion a victim capable of wielding some kind of power, even within a world that conspires against her.

A thriving, often brutal sexual economy holds sway around the Witch, shaping the lives of the characters to whom Melchor devotes the bulk of the novel’s pages. Not only does she facilitate the skin trade as an abortion provider, she also uses her money to lure men to her house, paying them for sexual favors and hosting drug-fueled parties. The two young men revealed early on to be her killers, Brando and Luismi, number among them, along with their junkie friends who turn the odd trick with men they ridicule as faggots. With so many locals unemployed and dependent on strained family structures for subsistence, sex is just about the only commodity up for sale.

Everywhere she looks, Melchor finds longing warped by desperate circumstances.

Each of the novel’s four central characters—Luismi’s cousin; his stepfather; his lover, Norma; and Brando—offers their own perspective on the events surrounding the Witch’s murder, dropping a few new details about how and why it happened. These sordid scraps of exposition are almost beside the point for the people remembering them; each account surges forth in an avalanche of torments and desires. The novel does not narrow in on the crime’s converging causes—as, say, García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold does—but spins outward, generating intensities as the narration leaps from character to character.

Melchor latches onto each of these witnesses for a single chapter, holding tight as they crash through their ordeals, then abandoning them at the height of their agony. Her close-third-person voice is intimate and coarse, sensitive to pleasure as well as pain. On Norma and Luismi’s first night together, she feels him “kiss her between her shoulder blades with his dry lips” before initiating anal sex. Beaten to a pulp and thrown into a jail cell, Brando tries to keep “his swollen insides from spilling out of the almost certainly hemorrhaging cavity of his abdomen.” Tenderness often comes coupled with violence, and each character’s defenses are lowered, penetrated, or shattered in turn.

The narrator never assumes a vantage point of superior judgment. Consider, for instance, how Norma discovers her sexuality as she’s abused by her stepfather:

Because before Pepe there’d been nothing there at all, nothing but folds of skin from which a stream of pee would flow when she sat on the toilet, and that other hole where her poo came out, of course, so who knows by what trick Pepe made another hole appear, a hole that, with time and Pepe’s rough fingers and the tip of his tongue, grew and grew until it could take in her stepfather’s entire cock, right down to the base, he’d say, till it hit the back, like it should, like Norma deserved, like she’d been pleading for it in silence all those years, right?

What’s shocking here is not just the awful collision of two vocabularies—the infantile and the erotic—but the way Melchor erodes Norma’s childish understanding of her own experience by letting Pepe’s voice take over mid-thought. It is as if the only words that Norma has to describe what’s happened to her are the ones she learned from her abuser. In internalizing the logic of her abuse and the desires it imposes on her, she confirms philosopher Amia Srinivasan’s argument that “the question of whether or not a child ‘wants it’ is irrelevant to the morality of pedophilia . . . because ‘wanting it’ is itself something so easily formed by adult violence.”

Everywhere she looks, Melchor finds longing warped by desperate circumstances. Her queer characters suffer this acutely, including the Witch. Though many of the local women accept her as an eccentric, helpful sister, male characters variously refer to her as a “faggot,” a “man . . . in ladies’ clothing,” or a “tranny.” We never learn how the Witch thinks about herself; only once does the narrator slip into her perspective, gazing from afar at a group of young men bathing in the river, their skin “taut and firm like the tart flesh of unripened fruit, the most irresistible kind.” In a novel filled with agonizing desire, hers may throb most painfully of all.

Melchor gives us a much closer view of Brando, whose infatuation with Luismi swells in an  atmosphere of bellicose masculinity. Heterosexuality is hardly mandatory among his friends; Brando marvels at the way they switch-hit not just for money, but also “for the sheer pleasure of fucking the fags.” Still, he suffers sex as a source of shame. For his macho pals, gay sex is still an instrument of dominance, as long as you’re not the one being penetrated. They are constantly reaffirming, in Octavio Paz’s famous terms, that they are the chingón, the male who “rips open the chingada, the female, who is pure passivity, defenseless against the exterior world.” When Brando spies Luismi kissing a man outside one of their local haunts and tells his friends, they deride him as a “twink” and boastfully plan to “bang him” (“se lo chinga”). At the end of Brando’s chapter, Melchor stages a heartrending prison-cell reunion with Luismi, a reversal that may be her most wrenching knife-twist of all: a yearning’s fulfillment proves just as shattering as the narrative’s many cruelties.

This is the kind of “transformative experience” that Melchor has chased in her journalism: not the faint epiphany of so much contemporary fiction, but the shattering extremes that twist the inner lives of people struggling under deprivation and violence. In interviews, she’s revealed that Hurricane Season was inspired by a sensationalist crime story about a woman killed by her ex-lover for trying to cast a spell on him. She toyed with the idea of interviewing the real witnesses and writing the story as a crónica, but decided against it. Such decisions can have fateful consequences in Veracruz, Mexico’s deadliest state for journalists.

Few writers since the revolutionary days of the Mexican novel have so vividly rendered the lives of Los de abajo—“those down below,” to quote the original Spanish title of Azuela’s The Underdogs. Long acquainted with mudslides and hurricanes, her characters see the suffering around them as another storm, a force of nature none can fight back against. Of course this is a tempest of human making, but to spell out that truth would betray their creator’s achievement. Solving the Witch’s murder can’t unriddle the predicament of La Matosa; all that it leaves behind is “a searing pain that refuses to go away.”

* More on the featured image, from Koral Carballo: “Mala Hora” is an act of resistance that makes use of documentary records of the streets that have been taken away from us through fear. From 10:45 p.m. to 4 a.m., I went to areas where I discovered signs or clues that then raised more questions: where do we locate the terror? Where is the control situated? What is fear? What is going on here?