Inside a closed paradise, evil breeds and strikes
PARADISE, by Fernanda Melchor | Translated by Sophie Hughes
“Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,” Satan asserts in perhaps the most quoted line of “Paradise Lost.” That sentiment serves as the driving ambition in Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor’s disturbing new novel, “Paradais,” which invokes the epic poem (there’s a character named Milton) but offers no angels, only demons of different varieties on either side of the doors.
“Paradais” is a phonetic spelling of Paradise, a gated community in Mexico whose English name our protagonist, Polo, struggles not to pronounce “Pa-ra-dee-sey.” Polo is a teenage gardener, born into a hell of poverty and violence; he makes his way inside the gardens of Paradais, only to be exploited and condemned to serve. There he meets Franco, or “fatboy”, as the narrative mostly refers to him – an unwitting bachelor and an outcast, despite coming from a wealthy family – and the two commit heinous crimes. The book opens in the aftermath of these crimes, as Polo repeats a perverse confession that is both an admission of complicity and a denial of guilt. The exact nature of their actions we won’t know until the end, but the general outline we understand immediately, simply from the all-consuming envy of Polo and the misogynistic bile that spurts from the two boys.
Melchor is an incredibly gifted writer. His previous book, ‘Hurricane Season’, caused a worldwide sensation, and ‘Paradais’, its follow-up, was shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. His translator for both novels, Sophie Hughes, deserves immense credit for capturing the vitality of the prose. But fair warning that this book is teeming with violence: graphic and aggressive sexual fantasies, anti-gay slurs, incest, murder, torture. If you’re new to Melchor’s work, it may take several pages to adjust. His sentences contain more clauses than seems possible; single paragraphs run for pages and pages. The visual effect is intimidating – an uninterrupted wall of text – and would perhaps be off-putting if the writing weren’t so enticing. Once you’ve acclimated to both the style and sheer rancor of prose (that is, once you’ve given up hope for a moment of grace), you’ll notice other things: the flourishes , attention to the natural world, poetic turns of phrase, artful sketches of the indignities of menial labor.
Here is part of a single sentence, in which Polo longs for deliverance: “so that he can lie down and watch the bits of sky sliding through the treetops and the log, the din of countless black crickets and the melodious cries of frightening- critters that fornicate and devour each other drowned out by the overwhelming voice of the river, its cold, tireless song, louder at night than at any other time, or so he was told Polo’s grandfather when they went fishing under the bridge at night, their rubber boots ankle-deep in the thick mud littered with broken glass, sharp bones and rusty cans, their eyes fixed on the fishing line. inclined peach projected into the misty mirror that was the backwater at that hour; gray and silver in the middle, intense green along the banks where the pitiless vegetation invaded everything, choking in an orgy of climbing tentacles and teeming webs vines and thorns and flowers that mummified the young trees then scattered the snags with devil’s trumpets and blue bellflowers, especially in June, when the rainy season was announced by isolated and all-powerful downpours that only seemed to burden the stifling evening air and accelerating the growth of the pestilential jungle of plants that grew everywhere: shrubs and vines and woods – stems of ivy appeared out of nowhere, green and lush, by the roadsides, or right in the middle of the splendid Paradise gardens.
Melchor’s Miltonian talent imbues “evil” with psychological complexity. In Polo, dark and poor in an economically brutal and racialized society, a student of American literature might remember another murderous character, Bigger Thomas. As in “Native Son”, this novel is clearly not about free for free; one could even argue that in a society steeped in blood and greed (epidemic femicide, narco murders, billionaires), a turn toward the grotesque, or the gothic, is actually a turn toward realism. And at the same time, one might also think of James Baldwin’s famous review of Richard Wright’s book: “Under the surface of this novel lies, it seems to me, a continuation, a complement, of that monstrous legend in which it was written. destroy.”
However, the stroke of genius here is to split a monster in two. In many respects, Franco is erected in binary opposition to Polo: white, blond, obese, rich, heir to generations of excess, rights, gluttony. Neither is capable of such horrific violence without the other – a kind of parasitic mutualism. The rich want to close the gates of Paradise and let the barbarians destroy each other, yet there can be no gates without guards, no paradise without gardeners. And anyway, they brought about their own destruction; the rot is already locked inside.
Justin Torres is the author of “We the Animals”.
PARADE | By Fernanda Melchor| Translated by Sophie Hughes | 125 pages | New Directions | Paper, $19.95