by: Gage Saylor
Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, trans. Sophie Hughes. New Directions Books, 2022. 128 pages. USD $19.95.
The second outing from acclaimed Mexican novelist Fernanda Melchor, Paradais is a breathless work. Breathless in its sharp and winding prose, where a sentence can stretch across an entire page, where a paragraph can run for a dozen pages or more, where one hundred twenty-eight pages zip by with one long, jaw-straining gasp. It’s breathless in its depictions of violence and erotic male fantasy, in the taped mouths of its countless innocent victims. And lastly, Paradais is breathless in the frantic masturbation of Franco Andrade, lusting, drooling, and plotting over the conquest of his new neighbor Señora Marián.
Told from the perspective of Polo, an overworked gardener and reluctant handyman at the gated community of Paradais, the novel is so lucid, disturbing, and intimate that the third-person perspective often slips out of recognition. The opening section of Paradais is a screed against Franco Andrade, who Polo mocks with every insult imaginable. But, slowly and masterfully, the truth is revealed as Polo’s jealousy and insecurities creep onto the page. Polo desperately wishes to distance himself from Franco and drag “fatboy” down for his privilege, his wealth, his whiteness, his unrealistic expectations, his horniness, his—well—everything.
Paradais marks the second collaboration between Melchor and translator Sophie Hughes, who translated Melchor’s first novel Hurricane Season. One would be remiss not to mention Hughes’ success in translating the novel, a significant feat considering the sprawling sentences, unrelenting obscenities, and Polo’s code-switching between residents, co-workers, and family. Melchor writes, and Hughes translates, “Paradais, Urquiza corrected Polo the second time he tried to say that gringo shit. It’s pronounced Pa-ra-dais, not Pa-radee-sey. Listen, repeat after me: Paradais. And the newest employee had wanted to reply: Paradais my ass” (36-7). When necessary, certain words of the original Spanish are preserved and Hughes lets the prose speak (and curse) for itself, a delicate balance that Hughes sustains throughout the novel.
Melchor’s psychological portrait of Polo is enthralling, and painful though it may be to read, it offers a warped logic that seems sensible. The trouble in Paradais concerns the opening pages and whether the reader is prepared for the violence, obscenity, and uncompromising torrent of prose. Polo’s obsession with Franco, nearly as disturbing as Franco’s obsession with Señora Marián, is initially off-putting. Melchor painedly chronicles (over the course of five pages) Franco’s masturbation habits after the arrival of his new neighbor.
fatboy would have no choice but to go home with his tail between his legs… to then slip away upstairs and lock himself in his air-conditioned room, farting and watching porn on his new laptop that the old pair had bought him for his last birthday and whose storage was already clogged up with smutty films that Franco downloaded from forums and his favorite websites, images of tits, pussies and asses that had actually begun to annoy him, but which he looked at all the same, out of habit, for hours on end. (7)
If the reader can stomach the lewd details of Franco’s masturbation fantasies, they soon find themselves sucked into Polo’s worldview, grappling with the source of Polo’s anger and dissatisfaction. Polo’s takedowns of Franco are a coping mechanism, a way to forget own shortcomings, a distancing that hides their similarities. Both are high school dropouts who revel in fantasy, guarding and bolstering their masculinity at every corner, who, together, routinely escape their circumstances out on the dock, sharing whatever alcohol they can purchase with money stolen from Franco’s grandparents. The meeting of these two depraved minds sets Polo and Franco on a trajectory that leads to a disturbing conclusion, a harebrained scheme born from an ultraviolent and ultrasexual world.
We aren’t meant to identify with Polo but to understand his mental processes at work. “He wasn’t there for the bottle of Bacardi, the six-pack of beers sweating in the heat or the cigarettes, and certainly not to avoid going home sober with his mother and slut of a cousin still up and waiting for him,” Melchor writes (13). Beneath the denial and avoidance, Polo’s true feelings reveal themselves, and Melchor’s razorwire prose cuts even deeper, in a fleeting memory about Polo’s grandfather, in his sense of impotence when Señora Marián tucks four hundred pesos into his overalls, or when he finds himself at the bottom of another bottle and still thirsty for escape.
Paradais depicts a cruel and unforgiving world, where a deep enough plunge into violent, sexual fantasy can have disastrous consequences, rooted in a culture of pornography and the everyday nature of heinous crimes. Melchor does not offer excuses or justifications for her characters’ actions, and among many triumphs, this is the novel’s greatest. Every last vulgar and offensive thought is wrung onto the page in unflinching and breathless prose, and over time, those thoughts manifest themselves into reality, become so entrenched that Polo and Franco will make them happen, no matter the consequence, to them or their victims.
Gage Saylor was raised in South Carolina. His work has appeared in Passages North, Moon City Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. at McNeese State University where he was awarded the Ada C. Vincent Scholarship, the Robert Olen Butler Award for Fiction, and the Paul-Avee Prize. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Fiction at Oklahoma State University.