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from the April 2020 issue

Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Season”: A Literary Triumph on the Failures of Mexican Modernization

Reviewed by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

A murder mystery, told through the thoughts and voices of the inhabitants of a small town in Veracruz, lays bare the shattered hopes of a community hit by rampant violence and economic austerity, as Melchor draws on disparate traditions (from crime fiction to García Márquez novels) to create a masterpiece that is very much her own.

When it was originally released in Spanish in 2017, Fernanda Melchor’s Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season) quickly became the Mexican novel of the year. Critics praised the book’s forceful prose and compelling narrative, noting how Melchor masterfully taps into disparate literary traditions—among them, noir detective novels and modernist psychological prose—to create something very much her own.

Prior to the release of the novel, Melchor was already considered a rising star. Her first book, Aquí no es Miami (This is not Miami, 2013), collected various nonfictional pieces on politics and violence in her native state of Veracruz, earning her a place in the revered tradition of crónicas, a major genre in Mexican culture combining journalism, indirect narrative styles, and essayism, popularized by writers like Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska. Shortly after, her first novel, Falsa liebre (False hare, 2013), secured her stature as one of the most interesting young writers in the country, showcasing both her unflinching style and the tropes that dominate her work: violence, the dark side of traditional masculinity, and the oppressiveness of life in Mexico’s tropical regions.

Melchor’s origins in Mexico’s Veracruz state, which runs along the Gulf of Mexico, are central to her work. Born in the city of Boca del Río, right next to Mexico’s most important trade port since colonial times, Melchor’s development as a writer has run parallel to the quick progression of the state into one of the most intense sites of violence and political corruption in the country. In her fiction and her nonfiction, Melchor explores the social, cultural, and economic processes that underlie the contemporary history of Veracruz.

Hurricane Season spectacularly fulfills the promise of Melchor’s early works, marking a major leap in her development as a writer. The novel revolves around the murder of a character known as the Witch and the discovery of her corpse by a group of children. The Witch’s identity and her murder provide a compelling narrative that would in itself sustain a very good noir tale, including a major twist that readers will find fascinating. The novel does not follow a linear narrative structure but rather meanders through the minds of various characters, and through different historical moments of importance to the local community.

Melchor uses this narrative kernel to build a complex architecture more widely focused on the life of a town in Veracruz called La Matosa. Some reviewers have noted that La Matosa should be taken as a fictional place, thus aligning the book with the long Latin American tradition of building mythical cities—from Juan Rulfo’s Comala and Elena Garro’s El Porvenir to García Márquez’s Macondo and even Roberto Bolaño’s Santa Teresa. La Matosa is the name of an actual site, a natural reserve close to the city of Alvarado, but not a town. It is named after Francisco de la Matosa, an Angolan slave leader who participated in the early seventeenth-century rebellion that established a community of freed African slaves in the region.

Regardless of how fictional we consider Melchor’s La Matosa to be, Veracruz’s history and the continued marginalization of its rural inhabitants, from colonial times to the present, act as a backdrop for the narrative. As the novel progresses, La Matosa becomes a symbol of Mexico’s failed modernization. Hurricane Season uses the Witch’s murder in part as a departure point to trace the history of violence in Veracruz and Mexico in the late twentieth century. At several junctures, the novel takes us back to late 1970s, when Mexico discovered major oil reserves initially hailed as a fast route to prosperity, giving rise to hopes that were quickly cut short by the price shock of 1982. La Matosa represents the type of peripheral community that would have played a secondary role in Mexico’s oil-fueled development projects. It grows by creating a buoyant but precarious parallel market of brothels and bars that quickly falls victim to neoliberal austerity policies, economic crisis, and the rise of the drug trade. The novel unfolds as an enactment of the collective memory of this community—an act of social remembrance rather than individual recollection. In Hurricane Season, the characters are more compelling in their whole than in themselves.

Hurricane Season is, in literary terms, a unique book in Mexican literature, at least among those translated and published in the US. Contemporary writers like Valeria Luiselli, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and Cristina Rivera Garza, to name a few, have staked their reputations on different forms of experimentation in fiction, and their works break significantly with twentieth-century traditions of Mexican and Latin American writing by venturing into forms of autofictional and experimental writing much different from the works of the pre-Bolaño canon. In contrast, Melchor updates a significant genealogy of twentieth-century fictional writing that is not so directly engaged by any other influential Mexican writer of her generation.

In an acknowledgment page in the Mexican edition (missing in the US translation), Melchor thanks editor and writer Martín Solares for recommending that she read The Autumn of the Patriarch. Melchor’s prose style clearly harks back to García Márquez’s great 1975 novel in the way its chapters are composed of long, single-paragraphed streams of consciousness. But Melchor also introduces a significant split within this tradition: whereas García Márquez’s prose trends towards the baroque, narrating by aggregation, Melchor’s prose is violent, tearing through the very elements that are brought together in its large chunks of thought. García Márquez skillfully constructs a lavish fictional reality, overflowing with elaborate details. Melchor presents a ravaged one, delivered in a raging voice.

Another element from García Márquez (himself a practitioner of the crónica genre) that seems decisive for Melchor is the idea of the novel as an enactment and performance of collective memory, rather than individual subjectivity. This was a feature of his short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which finds new life in Melchor. Her characters weave together a communal memory that is no longer just unreliable, as it was in García Márquez, but also broken, subject to the fragmentation caused by years of violence and precarity.

Melchor’s writing in Spanish showcases great grammatical and stylistic complexity, populated with regionalisms and subtle variations in narrative voice. Hurricane Season owes a significant part of its success and power to its form, and, as such, its translation into English was a tall order for Sophie Hughes. One of the most accomplished translators of Spanish-language fiction into English, Hughes has become a central figure thanks to her translations of authors like José Revueltas, Alia Trabucco Zerán, and Laia Jufresa, all of them distinct in their literary difficulty, and impeccably rendered into English. Although the translation loses some of Melchor’s linguistic richness, Hughes succeeds splendidly in conveying the flow and, more crucially, the immense power, of the narrative. Other than a few occasional words, Hughes resists the temptation to pepper the book with untranslated Spanish terms, and rather delivers them into her own inventive English nicknames and turns of phrase, which allows the book to be as powerful and as readable as the Spanish original.

At the moment of this writing, Hurricane Season has already picked up various major accolades beyond the Spanish-speaking world, including the Anna Seghers-Preis and the Internationaler Literaturpreis, both granted to the German translation. In English, the book was just shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (which will be awarded in May 19). Just like its Spanish version, Hurricane Season is well on the way to becoming a book of the year in English and in other languages. This is much-deserved recognition for a formidable and mighty novel, a masterpiece of Mexican literature.

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