Fernanda Melchor: Paradais (Paradais)
If you read Melchor’s previous novel translated into English – Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season) – you will know that Melchor focusses on the dark side of contemporary Mexico, which means violence (particularly against women) and drugs/booze/gangs.
This novel is set in a posh gated community called Paradais. Polo (real name: Leopoldo Garcia Chaparro) works there as a gardener. He does not like the job nor does he like the people. He is exploited, made to work long extra hours without pay and even wash his supervisor’s car. Moreover, he does not get on with his mother or cousin, with whom he lives. His mother is tough and made him sign up for the job and also made him promise to give up drinking, a promise which he frequently breaks with Fatboy, though feeling a certain amount of guilt.
Franco Andrade, whom Polo has nicknamed Fatboy, (always dragging his feet, with that formidable belly of his, that rosy face covered in whiteheads and those blond curls that made him look ridiculous, like an overfed cherubin; a monstrous manchild) lives with his grandparents. He has been expelled from high school and his grandparents are thinking of sending him to a military academy. Meanwhile all he does is look at porn on the Internet and masturbate. Polo and Fatboy hang out together, Polo pretending to like Fatboy because of the free booze and ciggies he gets from him.
Fatboy was obsessed wth Internet porn but that has started to change. Recently a new neighbour has arrived in the community. He is a TV star, married with two young boys. Fatboy helps look after the boys, not because of any love for the boys or because of hidden parental fantasies but simply because he has fallen heads over heels in love (or, rather, lust) with Marian, the TV star’s wife. Polo is less impressed with her but Fatboy has continual erotic fantasies about her, so much so that his Internet porn loves seem jaded in comparison. Polo, of course mocks Fatboy’s aspirations to have Marian as his lover.
Polo wants out, out away from his bullying mother and his pregnant cousin Zorayda. Zorayda had arrived to help with Polo’s now deceased grandfather. When she became pregnant – father unknown, could be anybody, according to Polo, though he has an idea who it might be – she was allowed Polo’s bed and he had to sleep on the floor, one more reason to resent her.
Polo had two people he was close to. The first was his now deceased grandfather, with whom he was going to build a boat – his grandfather was a skilled carpenter – but it never happened as his grandfather died. The second was his cousin Milton, with whom he was very close. Milton was involved in a car stealing gang and has suddenly disappeared. When he turns up, Polo is eager to join his gang.
Fatboy wants one thing – Marian, while Polo wants one thing – to get away and, to do this, he needs money. Both money and Marian are available in the Maronos house. Fatboy knows they leave the kitchen door unlocked at night so while drinking in the ruined, Bloody Countess’s house, they hatch a plot.
As mentioned above, Melchor is very much concerned with the dark side of contemporary Mexico and we certainly get that. Polo and Fatboy drink a lot (Polo is only sixteen). We know drug usage is prevalent in the area. Milton belongs to a brutally violent gang.
However, there is another side to this story – the disparity between rich and poor. Polo comes from a relatively poor family. Though his mother has improved her lot, they are still poor and she is always struggling financially which is why she wants her son to have some kind of job (she takes all his wages). Every day he goes to work Polo sees the rich – their parties, their smart cars, their jewellery and their seemingly easy life style. Not surprisingly he is envious. For him and Milton, there seems to be only one way out – crime. Polo had not tried hard as his mother constantly reminds him: was I the one who made you skive off and flunk every single subject because you were out getting legless? You had your chance to learn something, Polo, a better chance than me or your poor grandfather, rest his soul, and you fucked it up, sunshine.
However, Polo seems to be virtually the only character in the book we see actually doing a (more or less) honest day’s work. The Maronos may well do so but all we see is their partying and driving around in expensive cars. Polo’s mother may well so but we only see her eating, watching TV and berating her son. Polo’s grandfather probably did but he is dead. Polo’s boss seems to do little and the security guards only open the barriers to let the residents in. Milton and his gang, Franco Fatboy, Polo’s boss and others seem to do little so Polo’s envy is perhaps not surprising if not fully justified. In other words, there is a strong class/money divide in Mexico.
In my review of Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season), I said The men are seen as generally weak and/or cruel and vicious and this is the case here, though, I should add that, with the exception of Marian, the women do not fare much better. In short this is not the Mexico you will see in the travel brochures but, sadly, it is the real Mexico.
First published by Random House in 2020
Fìrst English publication in 2022 by Fitzcarraldo/New Directions
Translated by Sophie Hughes