Fernanda Melchor (trans. Sophie Hughes)
New Directions ($22.95)
Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (translated by Sophie Hughes) opens with a grinning corpse; it ends under a pinprick of starlight. Between, the novel remeasures space in the Americas, strung as it is along remote highways and canals. Along the way, the novel accumulates a string of voices, circling a violent crime in a Mexican village, La Matosa. The space that emerges is a border, both personal and moral, crossed and recrossed by characters seeking some final means of escape from the violent act that defines them. Along the way, the reader follows their descent. The storytelling tests the observer’s capacity to look away from a common violence, one that is both rooted in ourselves and that also propels us to deny our own connections to its wider effect.
Reading Melchor’s novel in the lead-up to the recent United States Presidential election felt pointed. The election itself both magnified Americans’ perceived sense of their own place at the world’s center, as well as distanced us from a recognition of the effect of American military and financial power around the globe. Rhetoric around “the border” as a central issue in the election obscured the two sides here. One, a demented drive to build a border wall—itself a tombstone for an empire’s imagination. The other, a determined effort to reassert an American “normality” that ignores the legacies of a chronic, violent distance. Melchor’s La Matosa becomes a lens for recovering a larger map here—a clearer memory for the migrations of people and capital that have redefined the Americas.
As village, La Matosa exists at the origins and end of the reader’s journey. Long set in the midst of sugarcane fields and resituated along a highway leading to the oil fields to the north, it offers a means of recollecting that journey—a taking stock of one’s place in the Americas. Characters’ voices blow through the novel, offering their perspectives on the time leading up to the murder of “the Witch,” a character of ambiguous gender who lives just outside the village. Norma, a teenage girl describes her journey to La Matosa in flight from the stepfather who has sexually assaulted her. The killer’s friend, Brando, retells his arrest, witnessing to a line of murderous descent that he has chosen. Even Munra, the driver of the getaway van, has his slant on the killing. The only one who does not speak is the corpse, “peeping out from the yellow foam on the [canal’s] surface” (4). Whether they speak or not, these characters narrate the shared force of a disfiguring, psychic violence stirred in an American (“AMERICAS” writ large here) hinterland.
Felt within and enacted in a range of carefully narrated scenes, that violence moves with relentless force. Repressed and acted upon, it turns characters’ imaginations inside out and spills blood. The motives are replete: rumored treasure, resentment, self-hatred, and secret histories. Witnesses line up and the reader is left in the place of a narrator (akin to the teller of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle) to recollect all that leads up to the inevitable blood. Who knew what and when? What is one’s own attachment within the village’s chains of cause and effect? Can the reader sustain imagination in the profane unfolding of La Matosa’s violence? It may depend on the reader’s own capacity for sorting denial and building horror—for “respect[ing] the dead silence of [the Witch’s] house” (206). How are we also witnesses of that killing?
Here, Sophie Hughes’ translation shimmers. The language gathers the force felt in the novel’s building violence without shying from the harms catalogued along the way. Within each character’s account, the translation fights to express the breathless motivation to strike back or within oneself. Following Melchor, it “names” without regard. These witnesses’ speech spits bile and gathers venom, at points seemingly fruitless in its attempts to name the harsh realities here—language at points frustrated like a character who dreams “he was a ghost haunting the streets in town trying to talk to people, but nobody paid any attention to him…because he could speak only in the language of the dead” (73). Hughes’ work contributes to a remapping of the Americas’ violences—chronicled and hidden, in place and unbordered.
The reader is challenged by the dissolution of those borders—in language as well as in the novel’s capacity to invoke a prevailing sense of empathy. Hurricane Season descends into the reader’s ability to rethink one’s place and unacknowledged impact across geographical, gendered, and personal borders. The prose dispels any sense of a prevailing “normal.” Late in the novel, an old man is at work, burying corpses in a cemetery just outside the village. He asks of the dead, “See that light shining in the distance?” (210). But is that light the proverbial “city shining on the hill” or the flash of approaching storm? Melchor sees here, unafraid to explore the villages that exist on the edge of her readers’ imaginations.