PARADAIS, by Fernanda Melchor | Translated by Sophie Hughes
“Better to reign in hell, than serve in Heav’n,” Satan claims in perhaps the most-quoted line from “Paradise Lost.” This sentiment serves as driving ambition in the 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 devils of different variety on either side of the gates.
“Paradais” is a phonetic spelling of Paradise, a gated community in Mexico whose English name our protagonist, Polo, finds difficult not to pronounce “Pa-ra-dee-sey.” Polo is a teenage groundsman, born into a hell of poverty and violence; he makes his way inside to 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 involuntary celibate and an outcast, despite coming from a wealthy family — and the two commit heinous crimes. The book opens in the aftermath of those crimes, as Polo rehearses a perverse confession that is both an admission of complicity and a denial of culpability. The exact nature of their deeds we won’t find out until the end, but the general outline we understand immediately, simply from Polo’s consuming envy and from the misogynistic bile that spews from both boys.
Melchor is an incredibly gifted writer. Her previous book Her, “Hurricane Season,” was something of a global sensation, and “Paradais,” her follow-up her, made the longlist for the International Booker Prize this year. Her translator for both novels, Sophie Hughes, deserves immense credit for capturing the vitality of the prose. But fair warning that this book teems with violence: graphic and aggressive sexual fantasies, anti-gay slurs, incest, murder, torture. If you’re new to Melchor’s work, it might take several pages to adjust. Her sentences contain more clauses than seemingly feasible; single paragraphs run for pages and pages. The visual effect is daunting — an unbroken wall of text — and would perhaps be off-putting if the writing weren’t so seductive. Once you’re acclimated to both the style and the sheer rancor of the prose (ie, once you give up hope for a moment of grace), you’ll notice other things: flourishes, the attention to the natural world, poetic turns of phrase, shrewd sketches of the indignities of menial labor.
Here’s part of a single sentence, in which Polo longs for deliverance: “to be able to lie down and look up at the snippets of sky gliding by through the treetops and woodbine, the din of countless black crickets and the tuneful cries of creepy- crawlies fornicating and devouring one another drowned out by the river’s overwhelming voice, its cold, indefatigable song, louder at night than at any other time, or that’s what Polo’s grandfather would tell him back when they used to go fishing at night under the bridge, their rubber boots ankle-deep in the thick mud littered with broken glass, sharp bones and rusty cans, their eyes fixed on the sloping fishing line cast into the misty mirror that was the backwater at that hour; gray and silver in the middle, intense green along the banks where the merciless vegetation overran everything, choking itself in an orgy of climbing tentacles and teeming webs of lianas and thorns and flowers that mummified the young trees then scattered the snags with devil’s trumpets and blue bellworts, especially come June, when the rainy season would announce itself with isolated, almighty downpours that only seemed to further charge the stifling evening air and accelerate the growth of the pestilent jungle of plants that sprang up on all sides: shrubs and vines and woody -stemmed ivy that appeared out of nowhere, green and lush, on the roadsides, or right in the middle of the splendid gardens of Paradais.”
Melchor’s Miltonian talent is imbuing “evil” with psychological complexity. In Polo, brown and poor in an economically brutal and racialized society, a student of American literature might be reminded of another murderous character, Bigger Thomas. As in “Native Son,” the point of this novel, clearly, is not gratuity for gratuity’s sake; one might even make the claim that in a society soaked with blood and greed (epidemic femicide, narco killings, billionaires), a turn toward the grotesque, or the gothic, is in fact a turn toward realism. And at the same time, one might be reminded too of James Baldwin’s famous critique of Richard Wright’s book: “Below the surface of this novel there lies, as it seems to me, a continuation, a complement, of that monstrous legend it was written to destroy.”
Yet the stroke of genius here is cleaving one monster into two. In many ways, Franco is set up in binary opposition to Polo: white, blond, obese, rich, the inheritor of generations of excess, entitlement, gluttony. Neither is capable of such horrendous violence without the other — a kind of parasitic mutualism. The rich want to close the gates to Paradise and leave the barbarians to destroy one another, yet there can be no gates without guards, no paradise without gardeners. And anyway, they’ve brought their own destruction; the rot is already locked within.
Justin Torres is the author of “We the Animals.”
PARADAIS | By Fernanda Melchor| Translated by Sophie Hughes | 125 pp. | New Directions | Paper, $19.95