:: Article

The fucker and the fucked: On Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season

By Trahearne Falvey.

Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season (Fitzcarraldo, 2019 / New Directions, 2020)

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, an attempt to define the national character of Mexico, Octavio Paz writes at length about the verb chingar, which can be translated as ‘to fuck’. He calls it a ‘magical word’ with various meanings, but which always ‘contains the idea of aggression…an emergence from oneself to penetrate another’. The details of a central act of aggression in Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in the UK and New Directions in North America, unravel through a succession of single-paragraph chapters of free indirect discourse , narrated through inhabitants of a small town in the coastal state of Veracruz—a place described by one character as ‘the ass end of nowhere’. There is a breathlessness to these accounts, as if time is running out. The novel begins with a group of young boys with slingshots, ‘scowling and fierce’, who discover a corpse floating in a river, and each lengthening, accelerating chapter takes us closer and closer to the act itself. Then they abruptly contract. The victim, the Witch, remains silent. Living in a run-down mansion ‘crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones [and] rotten leftovers’, she is a reviled and yet necessary figure for the libidinal and financial economies of the town—the abortionist for the ‘whores from the highway’ that serve local oil workers, the host of raucous parties which allow repressed desires to surface in the safety of darkness, and the absent ‘eye’ around which Melchor’s intense storm of voices, blood, semen, piss and shit revolves. The range of characters—including a young man with an erotic fixation with dogs, the pregnant thirteen year old Norma, and a disabled man, Munra, whose wife Chabela, a prostitute, says he can ‘do things with his tongue you wouldn’t believe’—all enable an exploration of what Paz calls the ‘many shadings and intonations’ of chingar, the ways in which people fuck each other over, or fuck each other up, or, simply, fuck each other, to use varieties of the, perhaps less ‘magical’, English verb.

Recent years have witnessed a new boom in Mexican fiction, with now internationally established writers like Valeria Luiselli and Yuri Herrera, working in the space opened up by Roberto Bolano’s opus 2666, staging a reckoning  with the violent implications of the constant migration of bodies and drugs across the US border. Hurricane Season is an important intervention—by focusing her attention on Veracruz, the initial site of conquistador colonialism, Melchor demonstrates that the everyday lives of people who are far away from the border, who are not narcos, and who are just trying to get by, or get high, or waste time while waiting for work, are still ‘dying in the heat’, at risk of destruction at every moment.

However, the question of movement and migration is always present: there is talk of people heading north and south in search of work, Munra becomes tired of telling his useless stepson Luismi ‘how good the pay was as a driver and all the places he’d see and the women he could have, and how those lucky bastards were never in the same place long’, and Luismi’s friend Brando fantasises about possibilities elsewhere:

Thirty thousand should do it, he calculated, thirty grand should be enough to get to Cancun and rent a room and start looking for a job, any job: as a waiter, a busboy, as a dishwasher if he had to, whatever it took at first, just to find his feet, and then he could learn a bit of English and look for work in the hotels – where there’d be no shortage of gringo fags looking for a poke – but never staying in the same place, always keeping on the move, drinking and fucking and getting shit-faced by that turquoise, almost green sea.

His plans, of course, are constrained.  Brando cannot imagine meaningful social and physical mobility, like that achieved by Javier Hernandez, the football player whose shirt he wears—he can only picture a future in which the same ‘drinking and fucking’ plays out against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea rather than the Gulf of Mexico. The relentless onslaught of clauses and conjunctions in Melchor’s sentences seem to mimic forward movement, but the reader is instead pushed deeper and deeper into the lives of characters for whom it appears death is the only way out of suffering and squalor. The chapters hurtle around and circle back to the same points, revealing grislier details previously omitted, and mostly end up with their protagonists at dead ends: in the arms of an abuser, descending into a fevered slumber, or prone and handcuffed to a hospital bed. Sometimes it is necessary to slow down or pause, and come up for air.

The question of femicide is also complicated. Violence against women is rising across Mexico, as demonstrated by recent case of Ingrid Escamilla, killed and skinned by her husband then displayed on the front covers of the newspapers with the caption ‘It was Cupid’s fault’, enraging and emboldening a growing feminist movement. In this context, the figure of the Witch seems straight-forward: she appears to be the symbolic victim in a country engaged in a process of reckoning with misogyny. The brilliance of Melchor’s novel, though, is that it continually overturns assumptions, doing so, sometimes, within the same sentence. During Munra’s chapter, for example, male pronouns are used to describe the Witch when, fraught with gay panic, he is repelled at the thought of allowing her masculine hands to touch him, but before the sentence ends, a page later, he employs female pronouns to depict her as ‘completely soaked with what he later discovered was blood’ on the floor of his van. The Witch’s gender identity and sexual orientation depend on who’s speaking: she is referred to as ‘the Girl’ at the beginning of the novel, albeit one who is ‘as spry as any boy’, and later is compared to a ‘crossdresser’, while, during the novel’s denouement, she is referred to almost exclusively as ‘faggot’. Like Lucious Skin’s bisexuality in Bolaño’s Savage Detectives, the queerness of the Witch troubles and brings into focus the destructive and hypocritical machismo of the male characters.

One way of making sense of what Melchor is up to here is to consider Paz’s assertion that for a Mexican there are only two possibilities: ‘either he inflicts the actions implied by chingar,’ he is the chingón, the macho, the one who penetrates, ‘or else he suffers them’. The figure of the Witch foregrounds and destabilizes what Paz calls ‘the dialectic of the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’’ through which all social relations in Mexico function, revealing that it relies less on static notions of identity and orientation than on shifting, relational positions. As well as being framed as the feminized victim who is beaten and fucked, she is also positioned as the gran chingón, the capable business person who negotiates rents and tells the women that come for herbal potions that their payments must ‘reflect the complexity of the request’. When one voice asserts that the Witch pays a ‘constant pilgrimage of boys’ to allow her to perform oral sex on them, it is unclear exactly who is suffering and who is winning in the exchange.

A critical turning point in the novel reveals the uneasiness of Paz’s dialectic. In this scene Brando is asked by another male character (who is only referred to with homophobic slurs) ‘if he wouldn’t mind taking down his trousers because he wanted to lick his ass’. At first, Brando mistakes ‘ass’ for ‘balls’ and starts to undo his belt buckle, but then asserts to the reader that he ‘wasn’t into that fag shit’, drawing attention to the fact that the ‘faggots’ and ‘queens’ of Melchor’s novel are deemed as such by the young men not because they are attracted to other men, or even that they have sex with them, but because they are chingadas, the ones who are ‘ripped open’. Previously Brando, whose nickname reflects, of course, a strong symbol of masculinity,  had orgasmed from the feeling of his male friend’s tongue on his frenulum, but in this scene he re-imagines the tongue as a penetrating muscle which would position him as the chingada. The ‘fag’ then asserts power by teasing him and the exchange ends as it only can—in violence. Brando headbutts the ‘fag’, breaking his glasses and nose, significantly, cutting himself in the process. The reader is asked, again and again, Who is the one getting fucked? to which the answer is: It’s not that simple.

The sheer number of times the word ‘faggot’ appears in this, Hurricane Season’s longest and most crucial chapter, highlights that this is as much a novel about masculinity and homophobia, internalised and externalised, as it is about misogyny. The rules for what is acceptable and unacceptable for a macho are always changing, and Brando has as much difficulty keeping up with them as the reader often does; he possesses no clear guide for what to do with his sexual desire and the shame it entails. Much of the tragedy and considerable affective power of Melchor’s novel comes from its characters being forced to be adults too early, having to learn their lines as they are playing the roles in a drama that is all too real. It is significant that we never hear about the boys with slingshots again: children, it seems, don’t exist (although Luismi, in a characteristically small and touching detail, sucks his thumb every night in his dreams). Norma’s chapter, in which she reads a story about a witch from a book called Fairy Tales for Children of All Ages in an attempt to make sense of her menstruation and what happens when it stops, is, arguably, the most heart-breaking section: Melchor builds a sense of dread, drip-feeding details about the form of ‘education’ Norma receives at home and the brutal truth of what she carries in her womb. The emancipatory power of the witch’s abortion potions,  therefore lies not in the ability to kill potential children, as such, but, rather, the possibility that they can enable children to continue to exist as children, as Chabela highlights when she tells Norma that she’s ‘too young to know what the fuck you want in life’. Against the context of a country where abortion is very much a pressing issue, and women are routinely prosecuted and convicted for having abortions, Melchor’s novel feels vital.

Chingar, Paz writes ‘stings, wounds, gashes, stains. And it provokes a bitter, resentful satisfaction.’ The same might be said about Melchor’s novel. It is gruelling and thrilling to be pummelled through its characters’ fast, fucked-up lives, but what emerges from the experience is a greater understanding of a complex country in crisis, as well as a whole world spiralling out of control. The timeliness of Hurricane Season is undoubtedly a reason for its position on the International Booker Prize’s shortlist: it acts as materialist critique of the kind of toxic masculinity that dominates the politics of our contemporary moment, demonstrating the ways in which social relations are reduced to, and simultaneously subvert, the dialectic of ‘fucker’ and ‘the fucked’.

Trahearne Falvey is a writer and teacher from the south coast of England who, until recently, was travelling in Mexico. His short fiction has been published in Algae, Mycelia, Molotov Cocktail and Short Fiction Journal, among others. He tweets sometimes @TrahearneF.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 20th, 2020.