Two teenagers almost get into a fight in a Walmart. This would be an unremarkable moment of suburban malaise, but Franco and Polo are bickering over which type of tape to use when they tie up and gag Franco’s neighbors, the Maroño family. Their quarrel is only resolved when an employee helps Polo find the duct tape. She casually quips, “Oh … you’re looking for kidnapper tape.”
Fernanda Melchor’s new novel, Paradais, is a kind of buddy story. Indeed, the author herself has referred to the novel’s protagonists as “tropical Beavis and Butt-head.”1 But in this story, the two buddies—Leopoldo “Polo” García Chaparro and Franco Andrade—don’t particularly like each other. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Polo is a gardener at the gated enclave within which Franco lives. The boys meet up for clandestine boozing, with Franco providing the hooch and Polo providing much of the thirst. During these sessions, Franco professes—over and again, in sordid detail—his love for his neighbor, Marián de Maroño. Out of these sessions, too, grows the plot to possess Marián by any means necessary. Franco’s fixation on her turns suddenly pointed at the idle goading of Polo: “She’ll never fuck you out of choice.”
In Polo and Franco’s world, femicide—the killing of women because they are women (different definitions exist)—is the norm, the default. In the absence of a means to satisfaction or a clear picture of the future, the only plan the boys are able to imagine involves rape and violence. With Polo and Franco, the coming together of two misfits from different sides of the river produces not reflection or understanding, only entrenched misogyny. The elements for a narrative of growth and self-discovery are there, but Melchor’s protagonists never change, leaving their masculinity uninterrogated and unchecked.
There is a terrifying inevitability to this dynamic. With no one else to turn to, the boys are drawn to each other. Franco doesn’t get along with the kids in the enclave. Polo’s only confidant was forcibly recruited by them—the narcos, the local organized crime racket. But whenever the boys do draw together, they are incapable of imagining much other than violence. With no real reason for this violence, there are few prospects for stopping it.
One of the epigraphs for Paradais comes from a famed work of Mexican literature, José Emilio Pacheco’s Battles in the Desert. Melchor twists and twists the buddy genre exemplified by Pacheco’s novella. Battles in the Desert also traces the coming of age of young men from different classes, as well as a fixation on a beautiful older woman. But the boys there actually do come of age; they grow up, and the story is a bittersweet narration of a time—for the kids themselves, for Mexico as a country—that has passed.
So, if anything, Paradais is a dystopian buddy story: a nightmare vision of the world made by femicide; a future that is already here. Polo and Franco show misogyny and violence emerging spontaneously, almost casually, from male camaraderie, ennui, dipshit youth.
There is no one standard definition of femicide or feminicide—different states of Mexico use different criteria for judging such violence—but it does take characteristic form in Mexico. The victims tend to be young women in precarious positions, with few resources to draw upon and few contacts to offer support. In Ciudad Juárez in the 1990s, they were often women from other regions who had moved to the border city to take jobs in the booming manufacturing industry. Cristina Rivera Garza writes in Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country that reports of femicide intone the same familiar lines: “no identity, no family, nothing at all.”2
This anonymity is a product not only of the precarious situation of the victims but also of the dismissive attitude of the state and officials. Femicide thrives on impunity. Few cases are thoroughly examined, and prosecutions are rarer still. Writing about Juárez in The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister, the journalist Sandra Rodriguez Nieto narrates the way a young man learns about femicides going unpunished and feels emboldened to perpetrate further violence.3 Officials often deflect responsibility onto the victim: why was she walking alone, why was she out at night, why was she dressed like that? In some cases, refusal or obstruction masks the direct complicity of state agents.
Ciudad Juárez, on the northern border of Mexico, became notorious in the ’90s for the number of femicides perpetrated there. Thanks to the work of local activists, artists, and reporters, this crisis elevated femicide to a national and international issue. But it was not the first, last, or biggest such crisis in Mexico (or even in Juárez).
In the state of México, which wraps around Mexico City, more women were killed and disappeared during that decade than in Juárez. In 2011 and 2012, hundreds of women and girls were murdered and over a thousand reported missing in the state. As Lydiette Carrión documents in La fosa de agua, the bodies of many missing girls were later found dumped in canals.4
Last year, activists and journalists sounded the alarm about soaring rates of disappearance and murder of women in Nuevo León, a state in northern Mexico.5 Among the many victims was Debanhi Escobar, whose case gained international attention—and a reluctant response from local government—after a haunting image of Escobar standing alone on the side of a highway on the night of her death circulated online.
Activists and journalists also sounded the alarm about rising rates of violence against women in the central state of Morelos. The year 2022 was the worst on record for femicide there, but this has received relatively little attention beyond the state.
The elements for a narrative of growth and self-discovery are there, but Melchor’s protagonists never change, leaving their masculinity uninterrogated and unchecked.
Franco and Polo come from different worlds—the exclusive enclave of Paradise and the impoverished town of Progreso—quite literally on opposite sides of the river. Paradise’s Franco is white, blonde, and seemingly sustained by cheese puffs. Progreso’s Polo is “dark skinned and ugly as sin” and sustained by booze and Alka-Seltzer. Franco lives in an air-conditioned house with his grandparents and watches porn incessantly on his computer. Polo sleeps on a pallet in the kitchen of his house, having ceded his bed—jammed into the one bedroom alongside his mom’s bed—to his pregnant cousin, Zorayda.
The title of the novel comes from one of the awkward disjunctures between these worlds. When Polo starts work at Paradise, he can’t pronounce the English name of the enclave. His bullying boss offers “Pa-ra-dais” as the phonetic rendering of the word into Spanish.
Paradise goes to considerable lengths to keep everything within the gated community orderly and pristine. Polo is kept busy exterminating the gophers and pruning back the undergrowth that encroach overnight. He is also tasked with cleaning up whenever the residents of Paradise make a mess of the grounds. It is an unending task, and it stirs up resentment in Polo—toward his boss, the Paradise residents, and his mother, who got him the job.
Melchor satirizes the fiction of freedom and safety in wealthy enclaves. But, beyond this, she reveals the seething anger produced by maintaining that fiction.
Our entire view of Paradise is filtered through Polo’s uneasy perspective. We see Franco largely at the surface level, Polo dwelling with disgust on his flabby flesh, whiteheads, cheese puff-stained fingers. We see everything that comes spilling out of Franco but have little insight into his internal world.
Polo is almost as guarded about his own interior. We know what angers and appalls him (almost everyone), but he holds much back from himself and the reader. Through his nervous repetition of set ideas—such as his insistence that he is not very interested in Marián—we come to suspect that he is not being entirely honest.
Outside of Paradise, Polo lives between two authorities, both referred to simply as “they” or them. The italicized them is used by people in Progreso to refer to the narcos. This word is a whisper, a rumor, a way of referring to the shadowy presence without breaking a code of silence. The other “they”—referred to without whispered italics—are the state authorities.
From the first page of the narrative, Polo anticipates giving an account of himself to the police. Both authorities are irresistible, and Polo’s main plan for evading the police involves throwing in his lot with the other them. In Melchor’s world, what separates the police from the narcos is little more than accent, intimation.
Paradais is Melchor’s fourth book, and her second after Hurricane Season to be translated into English. Since the publication of her first book, Aquí no es Miami, almost a decade ago, she has carved out a reputation for unsparing examinations of violence in Mexico. The dark absurdity of the Walmart altercation over “kidnapper tape” is a brief moment of humor in Melchor’s writing, but the attention to the vernacular of violence, the everyday expressions of cruelty, is absolutely characteristic of her vision.
In writing Paradais, Melchor sought to show that the bleak vision of her earlier work transcends class. The violence of Paradais directly continues from Hurricane Season. (The similarities between the books are more than a matter of content; both were translated into English by Sophie Hughes; Hurricane Season was short-listed and Paradais was long-listed for the International Booker Prize.)
Hurricane Season depicts the endemic violence of an impoverished corner of Veracruz, Melchor’s home state. The fictional town of La Matosa exists at the margins of Veracruz’s oil industry, its destiny shaped by natural disasters and infrastructure projects. La Matosa catches the dregs of oil wealth by catering to licit and illicit demands—for lunch, for drugs, for sex. The characters are caught in a storm of violence and hardship, with few prospects for escape.
Both books center on a particular act of femicide. The violence is never in doubt, but we read on to find out how and why it is perpetrated. At the beginning of Hurricane Season, a troop of boys find the body of the mysterious local known as “the Witch” floating in a canal. The opening passages of Paradais make clear that something—something for which Polo pleads his innocence—has happened to Marián.
“Paradais” shows that violence and misogyny emerge in even the most controlled environments.
Femicide is the animating preoccupation of the books.6 For Melchor, this means examining the men and misogyny behind the violence much more than the victims themselves. Paradais shows that violence and misogyny emerge in even the most controlled environments, but the violence within Paradise is very different from the violence outside the gates. Violence is endemic to Melchor’s Veracruz but exceptional within Paradise.
In Progreso, like in the Veracruz of Hurricane Season, there is little respite, few off-ramps from a life of hardship and misery. Polo’s cousin and closest friend, Milton, draws the attention of them through his moderately successful, moderately licit business. Milton is kidnapped, tortured, and forcibly recruited as a sicario, a paid killer. He commits his first murder with a gun pointed at his head. He has little real choice at any point.
Franco and Polo face no such pressure to pursue violence. Their plot emerges spontaneously from the ennui of their boozing sessions. Indeed, Polo is offered various alternatives to the violent path he chooses. Milton provides a rare moment of grace within Melchor’s bleak vision when he steadfastly refuses to connect Polo with them, affording him the choice that Milton never had. Without this connection, Polo’s whole part in the violent plot should come crashing down, but he carries on anyway.
Violence is also exceptional within Paradise because of the response it elicits from the authorities. Polo’s entire narrative is framed as an explanation of his innocence to the police. When crimes occur in Paradise, the police inevitably show up and investigate. Polo will have to give an account of his bungled involvement in the plot. In contrast, the police in Hurricane Season care little about the death of the Witch, beyond investigating (through torture and demolition) the legend of hidden treasure in her house.
Paradais is a story about a femicidal plot. But the details make this very different from most femicides—and from the crisis or crises of femicides in Mexico. This case is different because the police will actually come, a full investigation will take place, and Polo will have to give the rehearsed account of his actions. Polo and Franco discuss the likelihood of getting away with their crime, hatching plans to avoid any consequences. The answer to every possibility and permutation is more violence.
Paradais is a novel about femicide, but it is not really about the crises of femicide. Nor is it concerned with the environment, the conditions out of which femicide emerges. Rather, it offers an image of what follows on afterward (one thing that follows inevitably is more femicide, the future just the same as the past).
In this sense, Paradais is also very different from Hurricane Season, with its picture of endemic violence spawned by inexorable structural factors. Instead, and similar to Rodriguez Nieto’s Story of Vicente, this is a portrait of young men growing up in the world made by femicide, where impunity is the norm and violence is an easy option.
This brings us back to the dystopian buddy story. Benjamin T. Smith, a historian of Mexico, points out the jarring similarities between Paradais and another much-loved version of the buddy genre: Alfonso Cuarón’s 2002 film, Y tu mamá también.7 The protagonists of the film, Julio and Tenoch, also bond over fucking and getting fucked up. However, the narratives of film and book lead in opposite directions. For Julio and Tenoch, their desire for a seemingly unavailable woman prompts a journey of self-discovery and liberation from stale gender norms. There is no such hopeful journey in Paradais; the boys remain stuck in place and unable to imagine anything different.
Twenty years separate Paradais from Y tu mama también, and Melchor’s book offers a savage indictment of these two decades. As Smith highlights, the film captures a moment of optimism in Mexico. At the turn of the century, the country seemed to be changing. The old, patriarchal political and social order seemed to have been overturned. Decades of repressive, single-party rule had ended and a new party won the presidency in free elections. Y tu mama también depicts the world that might come after femicide, where a woman can safely jump in a car with two relative strangers and the protagonists of a buddy movie can kiss tenderly. The future seems freer.
Two decades later, Paradais repudiates that optimism. Mexico has suffered through the war on narcotrafficking, with hundreds of thousands killed or disappeared by police, military, and them. Presidents and parties come and go, the war itself may or may not be over, but the violence remains. Femicide continues to be dismissed as the responsibility of the victims and their families. A world free of femicide turned out to be a world made by femicide, where boys turn to violence because why not?
Gated communities like Paradise are some of the few spaces where the old fictions of freedom and safety persist (the expat hangouts and resorts are others). And yet even in Paradise, a world where the police show up and some notion of justice might be served, with Milton watching out for Polo, misogynist violence wells up.
Paradais narrates an exceptional case of femicide: violence in the one space from which it is supposed to be excluded, and violence without complete impunity. Polo and Franco represent a generation for whom violence is the only imaginable future, the young men that impunity creates. Their worlds—their world made by femicide—is one in which no haven is ever really safe, male friendship produces spontaneous violence, and the misogyny of the past repeats endlessly into the future.
- Max Pearl, “Fernanda Melchor Profile,” Vulture, May 2, 2022. ↩
- Cristina Rivera Garza, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (The Feminist Press, 2020), p. 65. ↩
- Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez, translated by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington (Verso Books, 2017). ↩
- Lydiette Carrión, La fosa de agua: Desapariciones y feminicidios en el río de los Remedios (Debate, 2018). ↩
- Ignacio Alvarado Álvarez, “Guns, Corruption, and Hypocrisy: Disappearance and Femicide in Nuevo León,” translated by Dawn Marie Paley, Pie de Página, July 1, 2022. ↩
- For a discussion of the different definitions, see Alice Driver, More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico (University of Arizona Press, 2015). ↩
- Smith’s most recent book is The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade (Norton, 2021). ↩