It's All Here

Fernanda Melchor, trans. Sophie Hughes, Paradais

Fitzcarraldo Editions, 128pp, £10.99, ISBN 9781913097875

reviewed by Trahearne Falvey

These days, it seems that few readers have much time for teenage boys. This is understandable: many teenagers’ minds are even more disgusting than their bedrooms, and it takes a writer as adept at controlling their gag reflex as Fernanda Melchor to venture in and see what might be causing the stink. In the International Booker-nominated Hurricane Season and, now, in Paradais (both translated by Sophie Hughes), she develops a convincing case that we should all be thinking a lot more about what happens under the squirming, sweaty skins of teenage boys. Melchor interrogates received notions concerning the reproduction of gendered violence in Mexico, shifting focus away from the borderlands and drug cartels that make the headlines and Netflix shows and onto the structuring of adolescent masculinity by the language and imagery of pornography. The purpose here is not simply to demonise teenage boys, though: yes, their psyches are the factory floors of misogyny and homophobia, but Melchor’s fiction suggests their unfinished softness offers a glimmer of hope that a spanner might yet be thrown in the production line.

Paradais tells the story of teenager Polo, stuck living in the ironically named Progreso and working in a gruelling job as a gardener in the eponymous luxury housing estate, where he comes into contact with Franco, also a teenage boy. This is not exactly a friendship. Poor, brown Polo has little in common with the rich, white Franco, who he refers to as ‘fatboy’, but just as he can ‘never say no’ to Franco’s offer of booze, he seemingly cannot escape involvement in Franco’s scheme to rape Señora Marián, the glamorous wife of his TV star neighbour. As in Hurricane Season, the propulsive prose limits the opportunities a reader might have to pause: Melchor pummels her reader forward, her sentences stretching their shattered attentions, such that it is simultaneously challenging to read the book and to not read it all, in one breathless sitting. This, combined with the single perspective and the paucity of white space, mirrors the sense of inescapable claustrophobia Polo feels. As we race towards the end, Franco’s grim plan, and with it Polo’s fate, gather a dreadful logic of inexorability.

Melchor’s Mexican teenagers may be in closer proximity to guns and drugs, but like most teenage boys they watch porn obsessively: Brando in Hurricane Season watches and rewatches ‘the one where a colossal black dude fucked a stacked blonde over a car bonnet; the one where two slags fucked each other’ (and so on), while Franco in Paradais locks himself away for hours on end to fart, eat cheese puffs, and watch the same videos, again and again, of ‘bitches’ getting banged. The visceral onslaught of clauses in Melchor’s fiction evokes the way that porn, as Amia Srinivasan writes in The Right to Sex, ‘bypasses that part of us which which pauses, considers, thinks’, and yet the repetitions and looping back of her long sentences mimic what Andrea Dworkin (as quoted in Srinivasan) describes as the ‘programmed tape loop’ of sexual fantasy, ‘repeating repeating in the narcoleptic mind’. These are lives which might be restless with movement but are confined, sludgy with repetition, and it takes something special to jolt them out of this pervasive monotony.

For Brando, it’s the image of a little girl performing fellatio on a Great Dane, whereas for Franco it is the arrival of Marián who suddenly makes all his porn ‘shit, grotesque, a sham’. The opening pages of the novel are taken up by Polo’s reporting of the various ways Franco will ‘fuck her like this’ and ‘bang her like this’. The expected ‘that’, which might at least signal variation, does not arrive — the deadening repetition of ‘this’ evokes the kind of dearth of imagination identified by Srinivasan. Porn, she argues, transforms the sexual imagination into ‘a mimesis-machine, incapable of generating its own novelty’. Franco simply transplants Marián’s face over his favourite porn stars, and the tape loop resumes. Polo — supervised by an exploitative boss at work, and by his mother at home — has less time and opportunity for solitary wanking than Franco, but he shares the same narrow pornographic vocabulary which renders women ‘skanks’ and ‘sluts’, reduces them to their orifices (‘gashes and asses’ and ‘blow job lips’) and slices their bodies into ‘pieces of ass’ and ‘sun-creamed flesh’. Caught within the grid of pornographic language, he seems unable to pause, think, and consider, and can only mimic the violence that surrounds him.

As much as Melchor’s teenage boys are disgusting and dangerous, they’re also pathetic, sometimes sympathetic. In Hurricane Season, Brando’s fixation is about an identification with the dog and a desire to inflict sexual violence — he imagines himself as the dog, pinning his classmate down and ‘fuck[ing] the absolute brains out of her with his cruel and inhuman black cock’ — but it’s also about an admiration for the ‘free and beautiful’ hounds he watches rutting in the streets at night, ‘sure of themselves in a way he wasn’t’, and sublimated desire for his male friend Luismi. Brando emerges from his chapter as a lost boy, struggling to navigate the map of contradictions that make up masculinity. In Paradais, readers may have a more difficult time sympathising with Franco, but Hughes makes inventive use of the English language’s range of words for penis (‘pecker’, ‘willy’, ‘stiffy’) to make him as pitiable as he is terrifying. When the boys’ linguistic violence turns into real tape over the real mouth of a real woman, there is a farcical moment when Franco calls a bound Marian ‘my love’ and attempts to give her cunnilingus. The teenage boy, Melchor suggests, is desperate for intimacy but clueless about how to achieve it.

Srinivasan writes that the female viewer of porn might, through identification with the male actor, take pleasure in ‘becoming the one, for once, doing the ordering, demanding, shoving, and pounding’. When it is revealed that Franco’s father hits him, we see how the teenage boy sits awkwardly between the powerless child and the powerful man, and how Srinivasan’s logic might be applied here. While it might be excessively kind to cast the monstrous Franco as a victim, Polo’s race and class seem to place him in a less privileged subject position than Señora Marián. Indeed, Melchor suggests we might even read Polo’s involvement in Franco’s plan as a form of postcolonial vengeance, summoning the spectre of a fabled ‘Bloody Countess’ who cherry-picked boys from among the slaves working her land to draw parallels with Polo’s relationship to Marián and his work as a gardener. While he clears leaves from the surface of her pool, she approaches him with ‘her lips blood-red like a vampire’s’ and gives him an envelope of money. Polo is excited but ends up vomiting in ‘violent spasms’, thinking of ‘the look on that bitch’s face as she slipped the envelope into his overall pocket, and the smile that Polo, like some kind of chump had been obliged to return, against his will, unable to stop the muscles on his face from contracting’. We might sympathise with Polo here, whose poverty pushes him into this degrading work, but this scene also foregrounds how anticolonialism has been used to legitimise misogyny; the narrative around La Malinche, Hernán Cortés indigenous Mexican translator and courtesan, is a historical example of this.

As this moment highlights, Polo emphasises his lack of agency throughout the novel, but it is left open to readers to decide how much they believe his opening claim that ‘it was all fatboy’s fault’. Against the context of Mexico’s postcolonial racial hierarchies, it’s understandable that the residents of Paradais, who perform their whiteness in a parade of pink polos and pastel shirts, have power over Polo. Franco, whose name is a symbol of Spanish neo-colonial authority, is repeatedly described in terms of his whiteness: his ‘rosy’ skin and blond curls make him look like an ‘overfed cherubim’ and give him a kind of innocence prior to the law which seems to make Polo’s accusation at the start of the novel futile. Whiteness is also integral to the novel’s only depiction of consensual, non-violent sex, when Polo’s mother watches a soap opera in which ‘a slim young man with blond hair and markedly European looks ‘ kisses ‘another light-skinned young woman’, and the implication here is that this is not the form of sexual experience available to the mestizo Polo, who calls himself prieto — ‘dark skinned and ugly as sin’.

However, the scepticism which originates in the first sentence’s subordinate clause ‘that’s what he would tell them’ grows as Polo directs blames his problems not only on Franco but everyone from his mother, his dead grandfather, and his cousin Zorayda. Zorayda foregrounds the limitations with both Polo’s narration and Melchor’s text: she is portrayed as a hypersexualised predator who Polo seemingly has no choice but to fuck, and, with her swelling belly and ‘claws’, represents the entrapments of domestic responsibility. This tired misogynistic trope is not, we assume, endorsed by Melchor, but by hewing so close to Polo’s perspective the narrative voice does not allow for counter-representations, and therefore threatens complicity in the teenage boy’s pornographic language that makes all women ‘sluts’. It is unfair to criticise a work for not doing what it does not attempt, but when Hurricane Season’s use of multiple perspectives so brilliantly uncovered narrators’ limits and overturned assumptions, it is disappointing that female characters do not get more space here.

Instead, Melchor uses a subplot involving Polo’s cousin Milton to challenge any conclusions that might be drawn from the novel about how vectors of class, race and gender combine to produce violence in Mexico. Milton, who Polo calls a ‘lucky prick’ and describes as ‘pale as a ghost [. . .] like some soap opera stud’, is abducted, beaten and threatened by a narco gang led by a licenciada, a female graduate. He participates in a murder because, just like Polo, he says he has no choice. Perhaps Melchor's argument here, in a text which is arguably even bleaker than its predecessor, is that any advantage bestowed by identity in Mexico is, eventually, irrelevant; you can live in a gated community surrounded by razor wire, but violence is inescapable. ‘[T]hey were all dead,’ she writes, ‘they were all dead.’

Paradais is a torrent of piss and shit and blood and semen, but for all its visceral realism it also possesses a mythic quality. It’s all here: Elysium, the gates of Hades, and an explorer-hero whose great moment results only in him finding himself back where he started. When Polo swims the Jamapa river that separates Progreso from Paradais — a Styx or a Lethe — he wakes up thinking he has been redeemed and purified. But the mattress still stinks; he goes to work as normal. If pornography, as Srinivasan writes, ‘etches deep grooves in the psyche’, Melchor’s fiction demonstrates how difficult it is to etch new grooves. Teenage boys might be awful, but it’s not completely their fault.

Trahearne Falvey is a writer and teacher in South London. His writing has appeared in publications including 3AM Magazine and Lunate. He has won the Aurora Prize and the Short Fiction International Story Prize, and is currently an Associate Editor at Short Fiction.