The title of Fernanda Melchor’s unrelenting novel brings together disruption and regularity, a break in the pattern but also the pattern that underlies the break. Early in the novel reference is made to a particularly apocalyptic hurricane that results in a disastrous landslide and an avalanche of mud. We’re told the event took place in 1978, but for the impoverished Mexicans whose lives Melchor describes the erosion is slow and uninterrupted, and has a timeless and existential quality. The emotional landscape of the book, its mutually reinforcing cruelty and neglect, isn’t a long way from Buñuel’s Mexican-set film Los Olvidados (1950), and aims for a similar response of bleak pity.
The institutions of church and state continue to fulfil their function, even if that function is almost purely oppressive. In the eyes of the Church, or at least of Father Casto, original sin is not disobedience to God but is congenitally and racially determined. He dedicates a special mass to
all the wicked folk in town, to all those who, having chosen witchcraft over God, had succumbed to darkness, to dark forces, to the legions of daemons and ghosts who roamed the earth; malign spirits that swarmed around looking for people to let them in: with impious thoughts, with the black magic rituals and superstitious beliefs which, to the town’s shame, abounded in that place, all because of the African roots of those who lived there, the idolatrous customs of the Indians; and because of all the poverty, destitution and ignorance.
Even Father Casto can’t ignore the effect of social degradation, though it’s way down his list. Blaming people for their misery still seems to be a major part of his job description.
There’s just enough religious education to convince young people that they may be damned, or worse than damned, plunged into ‘a darkness devoid of even the solace of the incandescent fires of hell’. The Church frowns on masturbation, but the code of Mexican machismo is more permissive, even allowing for deviations from heterosexuality: a limited range of acts is licensed for men clearly labelled as gay and inferior. It turns out these acts are not only convenient but addictive.
The police beat up suspects as a matter of course, all the more fiercely when the guilty party hasn’t succeeded in finding the treasure thought to belong to a murder victim. The police set off to the victim’s house to conduct a search, but it’s not evidence they’re after: they want to find what their suspect couldn’t. If they fail, they won’t be in a forgiving mood towards their prisoner when they return.
Everything here is provincial, even the drug trade. Reference is made to a local kingpin called Cuco Barabbás, his surname ringing biblically, but he’s hardly in the Most Wanted category. There’s more buying than selling: young people numb their misery with pills. Meanwhile, their elders stick to old remedies: ‘at least with booze the good things in life got better and the bad shit a little easier to stomach’, while pills just sent you ‘headlong into a deep, deep, lazy-ass sleep from which you woke up gasping, head pounding and eyes so swollen you could hardly open them with no idea how you got to bed or why you were covered with dirt or even shit, or who it was that smashed your face in.’
This is a matriarchy, but only by default: the women hold things together, however oppressively, when their men leave, are sent to prison or become unable to work. It seems standard practice to blame children for existing, and thereby ruining their mothers’ lives. Norma’s mother, for instance, projects a contradictory rage onto her daughter, resenting her presence while also expecting her to run a household that grows larger as the babies continue to arrive (unwanted but not prevented). She’s obsessed with making sure Norma doesn’t repeat her own mistake of early motherhood, constantly driving home the message that men and boys aren’t to be trusted. Hurricane Season doesn’t have a dynamic plot; it takes the form of circling monologues, or virtual monologues, narrated in an intimate third person. It’s a while before the reader grasps that Norma, who isn’t introduced for some time and starts life some way from the village of La Matosa where most of the characters are based, is the central or at least the catalytic character. Her home is in Ciudad del Valle, a single unpartitioned room close to the bus station, in the shadow of a five-storey office building so that no sun ever reaches it and the odds are stacked against a baby born in January, like her asthmatic little brother Patricio. Too frail to share the bed, where the others pile their clothes on top of them to keep warm, Patricio sleeps in a Moses basket hung from the ceiling, next to a lightbulb that is left on all day for the minimal heat it provides. One morning he doesn’t wake up; for once Norma’s mother doesn’t blame her, which, by her mother’s standards, constitutes a moment of grace.
Pepe, her stepfather, has been grooming Norma, while persuading her that she bears responsibility for their sexual relationship. He also prepares a fine cover story for her mother: ‘the only thing he was trying to do was show the poor kid the love she never felt from a father – it was normal that the girl should feel a bit confused by Pepe’s genuine and entirely innocent affections, and even that she should start to get a little crush on him, come on, she’s at that awkward age, hormones raging, poor girl, she might even imagine I love her in another way.’ Norma gets pregnant at 13, convinced it’s all her fault. Her mother is unaware of the situation. In any case, she would have blamed the victim; men will take whatever a woman lets them, if she doesn’t demand to be treated with respect. Norma imagines herself and her siblings through her mother’s eyes. They are
six mistakes that her mother made one after the other, each in a desperate attempt to hold on to a man who in almost every case wouldn’t even admit to being the father; men who, for Norma, were mere shadows that her mother cloaked herself in on nights out drinking, her bare legs showing under her sheer tights and her feet in the high heels that she never let Norma try on.
(That phrase about men as cloaking shadows is one of the few moments of poetic phrasing Melchor allows herself.) Six mistakes, but Norma as the first must bear the lion’s share of responsibility.
She leaves home, planning to kill herself in a place where she was once happy, but gets sidetracked. She is befriended by Luismi, a young man, a boy really, who shows her more affection than she’s used to, though it’s only an idyll in relative terms. He uses ‘a new hole, the only orifice on Norma’s body that Pepe hadn’t been able to claim for himself, because that business made Norma feel gross, and she’d always suspected that it would hurt like mad, but with Luismi it turned out to be pleasurable, maybe because Luismi didn’t try to crush her with his weight.’ Luismi doesn’t guess she’s pregnant, though his mother does, and between them the women try to do something about that. There is a certain amount of development of character and situation, but the book amounts to a crescendo of degradation. A young man, for instance, becomes fixated on a brief sexual encounter between a girl and a dog: ‘he’d wander the deserted street looking for signs – muffled barks, muted yelps – that would lead him to wherever that primitive, cyclical ritual was taking place.’
Hurricane Season has two epigraphs, one from the Old World (a verse of Yeats’s ‘Easter, 1916’, marking a historical break that is both catastrophic and redemptive) and one from the Mexican novelist Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s The Dead Girls (1977), another crime narrative. Melchor’s epigraph is not taken from the novel itself but from the author’s disclaimer: ‘Some of the events described here are real. All of the characters are invented.’ She doesn’t follow Ibargüengoitia stylistically or tonally. He claimed a much greater distance from his material, though he based his book on real murders.
Sophie Hughes’s translation alternates between British and American idioms and sometimes consciously rubs these up against each other, with ‘bint’ followed by ‘smart-ass’, ‘pisshead’ cheek by jowl with ‘missus’. The bottommost linguistic layer here seems to be British English, to go by normally reliable transatlantic shibboleths: the choice of a potato ‘crisp’ over potato ‘chip’ and the use of ‘maths’ plural rather than ‘math’ singular, ‘petrol’ rather than ‘gas’. The taboo word ‘cunt’, which often presents a problem for translators both into and out of English – since its cognates in other languages are less extreme – is used with apparent freedom but applied to men rather than women, in a way that may seek to neutralise its sexual rancour. Words like ‘tart’, ‘floozy’ and ‘bint’ crop up, but none of these is common in contemporary usage. The language elements of the translation don’t combine into a convincing emulsion. It’s not so much a rich mix of registers as a no-man’s-land of conflicting idioms.
Hurricane Season is divided into eight sections, each of which consists of a single, very long paragraph. Paragraphing is a form of courtesy to the reader; it creates a rhythm that allows the eye to rest and refreshes our attention. The protocols of courtesy change over time, so that paragraph lengths that once seemed moderate (I’m thinking of early Margaret Drabble novels) now seem surprisingly substantial. Withholding indentation can amount to an assertion of seriousness and ambition, as it does in Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. That novel, written in two enormous paragraphs of equal size, multiplies the rebarbative look of a single unindented page to convey, as if there was any doubt, that mere entertainment is not on the menu. Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, admittedly a short book, also has only two paragraphs, but they’re hardly symmetrical. The second is very short. How short? This short: ‘And then the storm of shit begins.’
The amount of blank space between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, the size of the hole in the ice where the freezing swimmer can snatch a breath, has no bearing on anything but the reader’s experience – without which a book doesn’t exist except as an object. The interval between the second and third sections of Hurricane Season is half the size of the previous gap, which amounts to a full page, and though white space doesn’t represent time in a novel, it strongly implies it.
Conventional paragraphing and chapter breaks could be inserted into Hurricane Season without repercussions on the other elements of the book, but Melchor’s way of constructing sentences, which also overrides the reader’s convenience, isn’t so easily wished away. The book’s third sentence, for instance, covering half a page, leads up to a main verb: a group of boys are described as ‘so ready to give themselves up for the cause that not even the youngest, bringing up the rear, would have dared admit he was scared’, then the sentence continues with an apparently endless succession of qualifying phrases in apposition:
the elastic of his slingshot pulled taut in his hands, the rock snug in the leather pad, primed to strike anything that got in his way at the very first sign of ambush, be that the caw of the bienteveo, perched unseen like a guard in the trees behind them, the rustle of leaves being thrashed aside, or the whoosh of a rock cleaving the air just beyond their noses, the breeze warm and the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts, that made them want to stop and turn round.
The whole latter part of the sentence is grammatically unsupported, cantilevered over empty space.
This is not the long sentence as practised by James, Proust or Mann. Their sentences were magnificently terraced earthworks, but Melchor’s are more like slow-motion mudslides. There’s no question of any surprise, a sting in the tail, the equivalent of Columbo’s ‘One more thing …’ The refusal of so much of the sentence’s structural, tonal and above all rhythmic potential has a disorienting effect. Short or shortish sentences acquire an extra forcefulness not necessarily connected with what they have to say. Take this pair: ‘Oi, he said, banging on the glass with the palm of his hand to wake the kid up, before opening the door. Inside it was roasting.’ It’s only the thickness of the surrounding undergrowth that makes them stand out – in most books they would be inconspicuous. What element of good behaviour explains the shortening of these particular sentences? They seem quite ordinary.
Thanks to their rarity, full stops in Hurricane Season become amplified, suggesting not a momentary pause but a definite or even indefinite arrest. A full stop becomes the equivalent of a hut in the mountains. Better take shelter here – who knows when there will be another? The rhythm of a sentence ending, its cadence, can sometimes produce an effect of sudden intensity. Here for instance is an enumeration of the concoctions women buy from the Witch, just the sort of practitioner that Father Casto preaches against:
potions to pin down the men, to really knock them off their feet; potions that wiped their own memories, or that directed every drop of their destructive potential into the seed that those bastards had left in the women’s bellies before scuttling back to their trucks; or those other tinctures, stronger still, which they say could purge hearts of the fatuous allure of suicide.
That last phrase, locked into place with the long-resisted full stop, is very striking, an almost freakishly successful translation that adds a sudden elegance – perhaps beyond that of the Spanish original. It resonates, without being a turning point in the novel. It doesn’t plausibly represent the thoughts or word choice of any character, but it makes an impression just the same. There are things that escape your control even when you devote your energy to controlling the reader.
There’s a difference between actual monologue and the virtual monologues which make up so much of this book. There’s not much first-person speech in Hurricane Season, but the textural difference is obvious when it comes. Here’s a woman in the hospital bed next to Norma’s:
my year of prayers really paid off, a full year, not a day missed, not even when I couldn’t get out of bed, when I thought I was dying of sadness, even then I said my prayers to dear St Jude and asked him for my boy to live, for my womb to hold him, protect him, for it not to happen again like with the others, when I’d been so careful and taken all my vitamins, only for the babies to fall out of me, that blood I’d find on my clothes in the toilet, and I’d just break down and cry; I even dreamed of blood, dreamed I was drowning in it, after years of rushing to the bathroom only to realise I’d lost another one: eight times in a row, my friend, eight times in the last three years, God’s honest truth.
There is rhythmic momentum here, and a reprieve from the grinding stasis that is the predominant effect of the novel. First-person speech has an organic rhythm, corresponding to the expending and replenishment of breath, which is lost when the same words are shifted into the third person.
Reading is a consensual activity, and even the most depressing book has a latent positivity, a sense that things need not be as they are, just as the most death-haunted dirge is still a song. Melchor’s long sentence seems to insist on the piling up of crushing circumstance, the opposite of the utter transformation announced in the epigraph from Yeats – the birth of a terrible beauty. George Steiner detected in Bernhard’s Correction not only a ‘maddening, grating recursive and tidal motion’, a description that could also be applied to Hurricane Season, but ‘a bracing, energising afterglow’. There’s no attempt at such redemption here. How could there be? The hurricane season is ‘coming hard’ and ‘it must be bad vibes, jinxes, causing all that bleakness: decapitated bodies, maimed bodies, rolled-up, bagged-up bodies dumped on the roadside or in hastily dug graves on the outskirts of town.’ In the last few pages all this bleakness finds its way into the character of a gravedigger, identified as the Grandfather, who at least knows the preferences of the dead: ‘They put up a real fight if they weren’t laid down flat, nice and snug one on top of the other: they couldn’t get comfy and they’d toss and turn and no one would be able to forget them and they’d end up trapped in this world, causing mischief, wandering around among the tombs.’
The goal of making the reader as powerless to contest the impact of the narrative as the characters are to resist their circumstances is undesirable as well as impractical. Reading can’t and shouldn’t become an ‘ineluctable modality’ (a phrase in Ulysses derived from Aristotle), something impossible to keep out, like the visual impressions received by an open-sighted eye. In literature readerly freedom is not something for technique to overcome but the medium through which technique operates, however extreme the material.