Mexico is one of Latin America’s least equitable countries, where the gap between rich and poor is among the widest and the drug cartels are some of the most violent. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Mexican women were found murdered in their hundreds on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez on the US border. Almost all had been sexually assaulted; some had been flayed or decapitated. The transborder killings gave a new word to the Spanish language: feminicidio – “femicide”. The violence was the work of rival drug cartels or policemen mixed up in those cartels.
Hurricane Season, Fernanda Melchor’s widely praised second novel, is set mostly in a fictional Mexican village called La Matosa. The novel is rife with narco-style violence and other horrors ranging from child abuse and animal pornography to cannibalism and has been shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.
For all its unpleasantness, Hurricane Season has the power at times to mesmerise, and was hailed as a masterwork on its publication in Mexico in 2017. In pages of expletive-heavy prose, the novel centres on the figure of La Bruja, the Witch. One day five little boys stumble on her corpse floating in an irrigation canal: “her face had been half-eaten by some animal and it looked like the crazy bitch, the poor thing, was smiling”. The Witch may have been killed for the gold coins she reputedly had stashed away, or sacrificed to some narco-trafficker’s pagan death cult. Nobody knows for sure, but speculation is rife.
Structurally adventurous, the novel is divided into eight sections, each of which consists of a single extremely long paragraph (sometimes 64 pages in length). Melchor does not make things easy for the reader. In the absence of conventional paragraphing, words come pell-mell in a dense torrent of abuse (“evil skank”, “ugly bint”), pavement-pounding political invective and the odd startling axiom (“the fatuous allure of suicide”). Hurricane Season is a book that makes significant demands on the reader’s willingness to submit to a dyspeptic vision of Mexico today.
A sense of mystery propels the plot. The events leading up to the Witch’s murder are seen through the eyes of five different characters. Among them is the 13-year-old Norma, groomed for a life of prostitution by a local sleazeball called Pepe, and the narco-gangster Cuco Barabbás, who drives around La Matosa and neighbouring Cuidad del Valle in a “pimped-up, blacked-out” pickup. Barabbás and his associates would think nothing of filming themselves “doing horrific things” to a kidnapped child.
With its paraphernalia of scythe-wielding carnival skeletons, grinning skulls and other cactus-prickly delights, the book might have issued from the charnel house of Baudelaire’s imagination. Melchor creates a sense of menace as she describes La Matosa as a village clogged with rubbish mouldering under the “brain-frying” heat of the Mexican sun. Life is overshadowed always by a spooky sub-world of pre-Hispanic custom and indigenous Indian superstition. Descended from Aztec and other Mexica peoples, the villagers worship the dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s first native saint, and the black-hooded reaper known to narco-gangsters as Her Most Holy Death. The Witch’s home is a hive of Catholic and Meso-American Indian belief, the walls hung with gewgaws and amulets to ward off the evil eye. She is revered by the rural dispossessed – known derisively in Mexico as los indios – as an oracle with powers to fornicate with the devil and “five-hooved” goat-like creatures. Some swear that she had murdered her own husband; others insist that she was a man in disguise.
Almost any contemporary novel set in Mexico is likely to recall Malcolm Lowry’s great Mexican fantasia Under the Volcano (1947), whose mescal-inspired grotesqueries – twitching centipedes, chocolate skulls – have left their mark on Melchor’s vision. Another likely influence is the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s sprawling 2004 novel 2666, which is based loosely on the Ciudad Juárez femicides. Like Bolaño before her, Melchor fathoms an underbelly of narco-crime and murder – a world shaped by the “full, brutal force of male vice”. The book’s incidental digressions on the nature of machismo and misogyny, religious prejudice and police corruption are only rarely tedious. Hurricane Season is, among other things, an apology for a mystery novel without a solution. The Witch’s killer is never found, but what stays with the reader is an atmosphere of generalised evil in a small-town Mexico riven by corruption and the routine degradation of women.
Sophie Hughes deserves a medal for her translation, which expertly captures the novel’s lugubrious comedy and propulsive, high-octane scatology (“shit-stirring harpies”). If Hurricane Season has a fault, it lies in the unrelentingly dark and testy quality of its vision, which allows for little or no hope. Melchor, 38, was reportedly depressed when she came to write the novel; it certainly shows.
Ian Thomson’s books include “The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica” (Faber)
Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 224pp, £12.99