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Fernanda Melchor: Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season)
A recent interview with Anne Enright had, as its headline, A lot of bad things happen to women in books. Really a lot. I am guessing that she had not read this book when she said that. If she ever does read it, it will really confirm her view.
I have also read another recent and highly relevant article, this one from World Literature Today: On Our Toes: Women against the Femicide Machine in Mexico, which states ten women are killed and 4,320 are raped in Mexico on daily basis. The article is by the brilliant Mexican writer Cristina Rivera-Garza. It makes grim reading.
The novel is set in the small Mexican town of La Matosa. The word means bushy but, for Spanish speakers,will undoubtedly remind them of the word matar, the Spanish for kill. We start with the Witch. We do not know her real name. No-one knows her real name. She had been married to Manolo Conde, who owned a house and extensive fields, some of which were rented, out and he lived on the proceeds. He died in somewhat mysterious circumstances. It was claimed that she killed him, either by poisoning or by witchcraft. His two sons by a previous marriage turned up, saying that the property was theirs. On the way to their father’s funeral, a lorry in front of them shed all its load of heavy metal onto their car. Both were killed. The Witch remained the owner of the property. Of course, it was said that it was her witchcraft that caused the accident.
Many of the local women go to her to ask her help and advice. She gives them potions: potions to pin down the men, to really knock them off their feet, and indeed potions to ward the bastards off for good; potions that wiped their own memories, or that focused every drop of their destructive potential in the seed that those bastards had left in the women’s bellies before scuttling back to their trucks.
One day, some of the women notice a child under the table. Who was the father? Some worried that it was their husband who might be the father. Others said the father was the Devil. It was alleged that the Witch had a statue of the Devil and regularly had sex with it.
The child grows up and becomes a young woman and she is soon taking charge of the business side of her mother’s activities. She introduces a scale of charges to the women, involving money (they had previously paid in not necessarily good quality food). She does the shopping. She starts lending money at thirty-five percent. There are grumblings but no more. She is also known as the Witch or, sometimes, as the Young Witch.
In 1978, the area was hit by a hurricane (presumably Tropical Storm Bess). It caused a huge amount of damage and extensive flooding. Many were killed, partially from a landslide, and many had to be evacuated. Eventually the sun returned and things dried out. No-one had seen either of the witches and assumed that both had been killed till, one day, the young witch, dressed all in black, appeared.
The town takes a turn for the worse after the storm. It was totally overrun by hookers and tramps who rolled in from God knows where, lured by the trail of banknotes that the oil trucks left in their wake. The older women still visit the Witch for the potions but the men visit her for sex. The local hookers (they understood and knew first-hand the full, brutal force of male vice) visit her for comfort and support which she is always willingly to give them, free of charge.
We know what happens to her because, at the beginning of the book, five boys find her body floating in a stream.
The rest of the book concerns the various people who have come into contact with her and may or may not be implicated in her death. We follow the story of Yesenia, whose mother abandoned her and who is brought up by her grandmother with her cousins/siblings. The grandmother can see no wrong in her male grandson, Luismi, despite his bad behaviour, drug use and so on, while Yesenia and the other girls are continually abused for the slightest infraction. Yesenia suspects that Luismi was very much involved in the Witch’s death.
Luismi has a girlfriend, Norma, who turns out to be thirteen and we follow her difficult upbringing and what happen when she tries to abort her child. Luismi assumes that he is the father. We also follow the story of Brando, Luismi’s freind, a weak-willed boy and man who generally gets his sexual kicks from masturbation but also earns money, like Luismi, from homosexual prostitution.
Finally, we have Chabela, Luismi’s mother and her current husband, the handicapped (because of a road accident) Munra, another weak man, despised by his wife and step-son.
No-one comes out of this novel well. There is no doubt that women are the main victims. Women who are elderly or simply different, who offer advice to other women, have been condemned as witches throughout history and throughout the world and this may have reduced but certainly has not stopped. Our two witches here are struggling to make a living and do the best that they can but pay a bitter price for it. It is even suggested that the young witch is a man. The other women also suffer. Norma is raped by her stepfather, abused for aborting the child and treated virtually as a sex slave by Luismi. Yesenia who remains stubbornly loyal to her grandmother, suffers all sorts of abuse at her hands, as she only favours her son and grandson. Even Chabela, who seems tough, has had a hard life.
The men are seen as generally weak and/or cruel and vicious. The police, in particular, are ruthless with their prisoners and, when the Witch dies, are only interested to see if she has any money hidden in her house and are only concerned about the killers in order to see if they know where this money is or have taken it. Even the five boys we meet at the beginning who find the witch’s body seem to be off somewhere to commit violent acts, as they are all carrying slingshots.
Melchor is clearly showing the terrible lot of the Mexican woman, subject to male cruelty and abuse and considered only as a sex object or, if relevant, as a source of income. No woman in this book is treated with any respect by any of the men. Sadly, the article mentioned above shows that Melchor is right in her judgement. The novel is a superb indictment of the patriarchy and the horrors that it commits. All men should read it.
First published by Random House in 2017
Fìrst English publication by Fitzcarraldo in 2020
Translated by Sophie Hughes