Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor (tr. Sophie Hughes)

Hurricane Season caught my eye as soon as it was published and the slew of positive reviews only fuelled my appetite. Not surprisingly, it has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize and widely touted to win it.

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. The novel is set in the village of La Matosa – a few miles from the town or city of Villa – a decrepit place of abject poverty dotted with roughly built shacks and surrounded by sugarcane fields.

In the first chapter, the shortest of the eight, a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal. The identity of the corpse is no big secret, the boys immediately identify it as that of the Witch.

The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

They called her the Witch, the same as her mother; the Young Witch when she first started trading in curses and cures, and then, when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.

One of the rumours surrounding the Witch, which assumes mythical proportions, is the alleged wealth that she is concealing – a wealth that comprises gold and various other treasures, which she likely inherited from her mother the Old Witch after the latter murdered her husband. And yet while these tales of hidden wealth refuse to die down, they don’t somehow match up to the filthy conditions prevalent in her home.

The village, however, continues to be fascinated with the Witch. The women visit her home to consult her about a myriad of illnesses and also to discuss domestic issues, while the men get attracted to the drug fuelled parties she regularly hosts.

The murder of the Witch then forms the base upon which the bulk of the novel rests. After the first couple of chapters, we are presented with four different perspectives (and these are the longest chapters in the novel). Each of these narratives circles closer to the Witch’s murder, throwing more light, and illuminating the motives behind it.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. What these narratives also do is paint a grim picture of an ugly village mired in poverty and crime, a brutal world where it is increasing difficult for its people to rise above their bleak circumstances.  

The central character in these four accounts is Luismi, a boy in his teens, and we are given an inkling of his involvement in the crime in the first narrative itself – that of his elder cousin Yesenia. Yesenia is the eldest of her siblings, brought up by their grandmother, who treats them poorly but dotes on her grandson Luismi the same way she doted on Luismi’s father. This results in a deep seated resentment towards Luismi as Yesenia laments her fate and tries to paint Luismi’s true colours to their grandmother but in vain.

The second chapter centers around Munra, who is Luismi’s stepfather and crippled by an accident. Although Luismi’s relationship with his mother is strained, he nevertheless resides with them. Through Munra, Luismi is depicted as a young man addicted to drugs that leaves him dazed most of the time and under the influence of a young girl who he shacks up with, a girl not to be trusted.

The third chapter focuses on this young girl Norma and we learn of the circumstances leading to how she ends up with Luismi. And the fourth account is that of Brando, Luismi’s friend and also complicit in the crime against the Witch.

Luismi is clearly the focal point in these chapters, and yet we are never given his perspective, we always see him through the lens of others. For the most part he comes across as completely drug addled and spaced out harbouring dreams of a job in an oil company promised to him by an ‘engineer friend’. And yet every narrative brings out a different side to him driving home the possibility that he is not as bad as he is made out to be.

Violence and foul language practically drips on every page. Men regularly hurl insults and beat women, and the younger girls are not spared from physical and sexual abuse either. It’s a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty and casual violence ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future. In the village of La Matosa particularly, the men hold no meaningful jobs and waste away in drugs, drink and prostitutes. The women latch on to men, get pregnant regularly but this only accentuates their woes as the burden of raising kids and holding on to meager paying jobs falls on them.

…what happened to her mother after a spell of going out at night in her flesh-coloured tights and her high heels, when from one day to the next her body would start to swell, reaching grotesque proportions before finally expelling a new child, a new sibling for Norma, a new mistake that generated a new set of problems for her mother, but above all, for Norma: sleepless nights, crushing tiredness, reeking nappies, mountains of sicky clothes, and crying, unbroken, ceaseless crying. Yet another open mouth demanding food and whingeing…

The only thriving establishments around La Matosa are highway dives and brothels, which are also magnets for drug peddlers.

Of the four narratives, the chapter on Norma and Brando are particularly disturbing and sometimes difficult to stomach – the one on Norma more so because it delves deeper into the deviant mind of a child molester.

And yet despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless. She does not mince words but depicts a small claustrophobic world in the back of beyond just the way it is.

It’s a book that deserves its place on the International Booker shortlist.

Loop – Brenda Lozano (tr. Annie McDermott)

The first Charco Press title that I savoured was Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz. That was one impressive read and it found a place on my Best of 2018 list. This year, particularly, I have tried quite a few of their books, and the experience has been great. Both The German Room and Fish Soup were fabulous as was The Wind That Lays Waste.

So without much ado, let me delve right into one of their newest releases, Loop.

Loop is narrated in the form of diary entries that our unnamed narrator (a woman) jots down in her Ideal notebook, as she waits for her boyfriend Jonas to return from his trip to Spain. The recent death of his mother prompts Jonas to go on this trip with his father and sister.

The Ideal notebook is a recurring motif in the novel. It’s a notebook not easily available in stationary shops. In a way, the narrator compares her act of writing (composing and erasing thoughts and ideas) in her notebook to that of Penelope weaving and unravelling the shroud as she waits for Odysseus’ return in Homer’s Odyssey.

The entries are not made in any linear fashion. Instead, it is more of a circular narrative as a lot of the themes, ideas and motifs recur at various points in the novel, just as thoughts generally do. It also explains why the novel is titled Loop.

Gradually, we get a glimpse of the narrator’s personality and a bit of her everyday life. She might be pining for Jonas but she is not entirely alone given her rich circle of friends. These are friends with whom she attends parties, conferences or even dinners.

If I wrote about my friends, I’d dedicate chapters to Tania, Julia, Carolina, Guillermo, Tepepunk, Antonio and Luis Felipe.

Our narrator carries her Ideal notebook with her all the time, and it especially comes in handy when she is waiting either in reception rooms or at airports. These serve as the perfect places to pen her thoughts on tangible stuff such as music (David Bowie and Shakira make frequent appearances), literature, the availability of Ideal notebooks, to more philosophical musings like Jonas’ return, relationships with parents, metamorphosis, love and death as well as many other abstract ideas. For instance, there is one chapter that explores the concept of an island and loneliness.

As our narrator waits for Jonas, she is also plagued by doubts about whether he will really return. And even if he does, will things ever be the same?

Sometimes I’m afraid. I wonder what will happen when Jonas returns from his trip. Sometimes I worry that when he comes back this will all be over, but then, I’m scared of endings in general. It’s a consequence of the accident.

The accident incidentally was a near fatal one but our narrator manages to stage a gradual recovery.

When the recovery begins, when you’re gradually getting better, there’s a window, a small frame through which you can project yourself into another time – into the future. At the end of the day, that’s what low points are for: to open that window. I thought a lot about doing everything I’d been afraid to do, and that was the window I had.

A heady cocktail of reflections and recurring patterns swirl in our narrator’s mind. Numerous references are made to the dwarf next door that sets off a chain of thoughts on scale and size.

The dwarf, who’s a different height, who can sit in a chair and not touch the floor with his shoes. Who lives on a different scale. Who lives in a strange sort of margin. Who has the same abilities as you. Who walks down the same pavement as you. And yet.

Our narrator is also fascinated by useless things and by people who are on the margins.

Marginal, useless work. Infact I’m drawn to the very idea of uselessness because there’s something almost fictional about it. A piece of work, an object, the more ridiculously useless it seems, the more fascinating I find it. All those objects, all those services that serve no one seem to me like the triumph of fiction.

On a minor scale, she writes about her cat…

The cat’s in the living room playing with the pencil I dropped; I’m feeling sleepier and sleepier. It’s like the cat and I are working shifts on an office reception, taking it in turns behind the desk. I don’t know what that means, of course, but it’s the kind of thing I write, as if I’m playing with this pencil. Writing is my way of being a cat and shedding fur, or phrases, onto the armchair.

…And in some entries, her range of writing expands to the political as she laments the violence in her country, Mexico.

Have we got used to cruelty?

Changes in the cabinet, a change of president and the numbers don’t change. I wonder what would happen if each parent, each child, each person who’s lost someone in the last few years picked up the microphone to talk about their loss…every single one of those stories out loud.      

Other than The Odyssey, Loop deliciously abounds with references made to literary works and figures. Here’s a taster:

Beckett: So is this the story of waiting? ‘Waiting for Godot’, waiting for Jonas?

Kafka: Speaking of Kafka, have I told you he’s one of the authors I read for self-improvement?

Wilde: My first story was about a giant because the first thing I read and fell in love with was about a giant, I was seven when I read that Oscar Wilde story.

Proust: I like what I’m reading so much that if Proust were a madeleine I’d dress as a cup of tea. In fact, if Proust were alive and in Chicago, I’d invite him to the party. I bet it would be fun to go to a party with Proust. He’d be the first on the dancefloor.

Pessoa: This morning I walked past a café. I imagined Pessoa ordering five different drinks, one for each of his heteronyms.

Emmanuel Bove: Emmanuel Bove’s first novel is called ‘My Friends.’ I’ve been looking for this book for years. To no avail. If I weren’t going to the cinema tonight, I’d write a version of ‘My Friends’.

Machado de Assis: My dear friend Tepepunk gave me ‘The Alienist’, by Assis. There’s a minor character who nowadays seems hard to imagine: the rattle man.

My verdict? I loved Loop.

Brenda Lozano’s voice is fresh, irreverent, and her unique imagination peppered with flights of whimsy is at full display here. There is a beguiling quality to her writing that makes Loop quite an addictive read. The narrative is fragmentary and introspective, and the repetition of ideas heightens Loop’s novelty rather than detract from it.

The book is immensely quotable. That said, instead of elaborating further, I would instead urge you to experience Loop yourself. Another wonderful title from Charco Press and I look forward to their publishing schedule for 2020.

Meaning that being thirty-one and waiting for Jonas to come back from his trip, plus a cat, some plants, some books and an apartment aren’t the average.

Why the fervent desire to be part of the norm? How to get away from it? What’s the most distant point?