Welcome to “Lately in Literature with Leyla” where I review new book releases every two weeks to keep you up to date with some of the best contemporary fiction. Join me to choose your next read and impress your friends with your reading lists!
I was inclined to choose “Paradais” due to its publicity and awards buzz, however, by the time I was done, Fernanda Melchor had presented me with a completely revolutionary way of bringing fictional characters to life. . In just 118 pages, Melchor got me thinking about global issues of violence, Americanization, and the systemic oppression of women, solidifying my appreciation of contemporary Mexican literature.
‘Paradais’ is Fernanda Melchor’s second novel and has long been on the 2022 Booker Prize list. It revolves around two young boys, Franco and Polo, who come from two distinct social classes. Franco comes from an upper middle class family and has no real responsibilities. On the other hand, Polo is overworked to earn enough money.
The boys meet at “Paradise”, a luxury housing complex in Veracruz, Mexico, where Franco resides and Polo works as a gardener. Although 16-year-old Polo lives “on the other side of the tracks”, physically and socially, he befriends Franco. He pretends to like Franco so that Franco buys him alcohol. Melchor depicts their late-night drunken conversations leading to foul play. It depicts two odious characters who, despite their different social origins, possess the same toxicity.
Franco is obsessed with his neighbor, Señora Marián, the wife of a famous television personality who spends the day at home where Franco shamelessly stalks her. He also tells Polo his vile fantasies about her, while Polo also references his cousin using slurs. In an interview with the London Review Bookstore, Melchor said, “Sometimes violence is not the product of misery, poverty or moral destitution (of) abuse and despair. (…) Sometimes violence has no meaning”.
Here and in the book, she emphasizes that the violence, the misogyny shown by the two characters, has no precise source. It doesn’t stem from Polo’s financial anxieties, and it’s not something that can be solved via Franco’s father’s bank account. Rather, it is a culture of systemic oppression persisting across generations and surfacing insanely among young boys.
Melchor doesn’t stray from the characters but writes in their tones, crafting long, aggressive sentences that go on for pages. Its prose contains disturbing imagery that emotionally drains the reader and makes “Paradais” an extremely difficult book to read. Often, Melchor wrote in Polo’s voice to create shock effect, causing disgust and anger in his audience. This use of language allows Melchor to confront the verbal abuse that our society repeatedly ignores.
Melchor also intends to illustrate that the violence behind the boys’ speech is a problem without borders. Paradise acts as a setting where the boys’ dreadful ideas take place. Melchor observes that even the most closed communities are not exempt from the dangers of systemic issues rooted in broader cultures. In the same interview, she says: “People have this fantasy that if they put up walls, barbed wire fences, guards and cameras, they will be protected (…) Violence is inside your community. The problem of violence against women is a systemic problem, intrinsic to our culture, from which we cannot protect ourselves with the strongest external defenses.
To add, by depicting the boys of Veracruz in a luxury resort named in English, Melchor underscores the futility of Americanization, showing that western cultural influence is not synonymous with modernization and security, like the The zeitgeist of today manipulates people into believing it. She notes again that the problems she portrays are borderless.
“Paradais, corrected Urquiza Polo the second time he tried to say that gringo shit. It’s pronounced Pa-ra-dais, not Pa-ra-dee-sey. Listen, repeat after me: Paradais. And the last employee wanted to answer: Paradais mon cul (…)”
Here and with the title of the novel, Melchor not only ridicules American influence abroad, but also conveys that violence against women concerns all cultures, even if its central point is the impact of this problem in Mexico. Considering that in the media, the global discourse on feminism has been represented overwhelmingly by white women, Melchor’s perspective adds much-needed diversification, giving readers insight into the discourse in Mexico.
Another theme tackled by Melchor is existentialism in relation to the oppression of women. By presenting the dark spirits of the young boys in the book so vividly and providing no reason for Franco’s unsettling obsession or Polo’s sinister way of following his friend’s wishes, Melchor argues that there is a lingering mystery behind the ongoing violence against women. Questioning this mystery, she borrows ideas from Simone de Beauvoir, like the idea of “feminine mystery”.
In Paradais, the reader does not know the woman of Franco’s obsession, Señora Marián, closely, because she is always portrayed with a male gaze. In fact, “Paradais” would have no chance of passing the Bechdel test. In a way, Señora Marian embodies the feminine mystery mentioned above.
Philosophically because she is “the other” in a patriarchal society. And literally, she’s one of the only female characters in the book that neither the readers nor her obsessive neighbor actually know. However, even if she doesn’t know her well enough, what happens to her in the next hundred pages is never a shock. It’s as if her destiny was already written and the reader can read it without hoping that she escapes from a cruel world. Thus, in Melchor’s work, the female mystery is also the mystery behind female struggle and oppression. The mystery of our awareness of it, but our inability to overcome it.
The novel is a must-read for delving into Latin literary traditions and analyzing how they persist or change. Asked about magical realism, a literary style that originated in Latin America by writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, Melchor points out her frustration with the term because nowadays it can make people focus more on the fantastical aspects of novels. and less about the reality that they were influenced by.
Melchor notes that despite his use of shocking language and depiction of extreme violence, what happens in his novel is very real. His influence through magical realism is evident in his portrayal of the setting, a dark and spooky “paradise”, but his strong use of colloquialism and dialogue highlights the reality of it all.
“Paradais” is not a book that I would recommend with peace of mind. Yet it is a portrayal of reality that should no longer be ignored, especially by powerful institutions such as Stanford. It shines a light on humanity’s frustrating inability to act against systemic oppression and mocks our idea of a false reality that manipulates us to believe that this oppression is long since resolved.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes thoughts, opinions, and subjective criticism.