Lately in literature: Fernanda Melchor’s disturbing novel ‘Paradais’ is the new existential feminist text

Oct. 18, 2022, 8:40 p.m.

Welcome to “Lately in Literature with Leyla” where I review new book releases every other week to keep you updated on some of the best contemporary fiction. Join me to pick up your next read and impress your friends with your to-be-read lists!

I was inclined to pick up ‘Paradais’ due to its publicity and award buzz, however, by the time I was done, Fernanda Melchor had introduced me to a completely revolutionary way of bringing fictional characters to life. In just 118 pages, Melchor made me ponder the global issues of violence, Americanization and systemic oppression of women, enhancing my appreciation for contemporary Mexican literature. 

‘Paradais’ is Fernanda Melchor’s second novel and was long listed for the 2022 Booker prize. It centers around two young boys, Franco and Polo, from two distinct social classes. Franco has an upper-middle class family and no real responsibilities. On the other hand, Polo is overworked to earn enough money.

The boys meet in “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’, both physically and socially, he befriends Franco. He pretends to like Franco so that Franco will buy him alcohol. Melchor depicts their late-night drunken conversations leading up to a criminal act. She presents two abhorrent characters who, despite their different social backgrounds, possess the same toxicity.

Franco is obsessed with his neighbor, Señora Marián, the wife of a famous TV personality who spends the day at home where Franco shamelessly stalks her. He also tells Polo his vile fantasies about her, while Polo too refers to his female cousin using slurs. In an interview with the London Review Bookstore, Melchor said: “Sometimes violence is not a product of misery or poverty or moral indigency (from) abuse and desperation. (…) Sometimes violence is senseless”.

Here and in the book, she highlights that violence, the misogyny the two characters exhibit, does not have a clear-cut source. It does not stem from the financial anxieties that Polo has, and it is not something that can be remedied through Franco’s dad’s bank account. Rather, it is a culture of systemic oppression persisting throughout generations and surfacing senselessly in young boys.

Melchor does not distance herself from the characters but writes in their tones, creating long and aggressive sentences that go on for pages. Her prose contains disturbing imagery which emotionally drains the reader and renders “Paradais” a book that is extremely hard to keep on reading. Often, Melchor writes from Polo’s voice to create a shock effect, provoking disgust and anger in her audience. This use of language enables Melchor to confront verbal violence that our society ignores time and time again.

Melchor also intends to illustrate that the violence behind the boys’ speech is a borderless issue. Paradise acts as a setting where the boys’ appalling ideas take place. Melchor observes that even the most gated communities are not exempt from the dangers of systemic problems ingrained within larger cultures. In the same interview she says: “People have this fantasy that if they put walls and barbed wire fences and guards and cameras, they will be protected(…) Violence is inside your community.” The problem of violence against women is a systemic issue, intrinsic within our culture, something we cannot protect ourselves from with the strongest external defenses.

To add, by depicting the boys in Veracruz within an English named luxury complex, Melchor points out the futility of Americanization, showing that cultural influence from the west does not equal modernization and safety, as today’s zeitgeist manipulates people to believe. She notes again that the problems she depicts are borderless.

“Paradais, Urquiza corrected 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 newest employee had wanted to reply: Paradais my ass (…)”

Here and with the title of the novel, Melchor not only ridicules American influence abroad, but also conveys that violence against women pertains accross cultures, even though her focal point is the impact of this problem in Mexico. Considering that in media, global discourse on feminism has been represented in majority through white women, Melchor’s point of view adds much needed diversification, giving the readers a peak into the discourse in Mexico.

Another theme Melchor tackles is existentialism in relation to the oppression of women. By presenting the dark minds of the young boys in the book so vividly and not providing reason for Franco’s unsettling obsession or Polo’s sinister way of tagging along with his friend’s desires, Melchor argues that there is an ongoing mystery behind ongoing violence against women. Questioning this mystery, she borrows ideas from Simone de Beauvoir, such as the idea of ‘feminine mystery.’

In Paradais, the reader does not get to know the woman of Franco’s obsession, Señora Marián, closely as she is always described from the male gaze. In fact, “Paradais” would not have a chance at passing the Bechdel test. In a way, Señora Marian embodies the above mentioned feminine mystery.

Philosophically as she is the ‘other’ in a patriarchal society. And literally she is one of the only female characters in the book whom neither the readers nor her obsessive neighbor actually gets to know. However, despite not knowing her enough, what happens to her in the following hundred pages never comes as a shock. It is as though her destiny has already been written out and the reader gets to read it through without having hope for her escape from a cruel world. Thus, in Melchor’s work feminine mystery is also the mystery behind female struggle and oppression. The mystery of our awareness of it, yet our inability to overcome it.

The novel is a must-read to delve into Latin literary traditions and analyze how they persist or change. When asked about magical realism, a literary style that originated in Latin America by writers including Gabriel García Márquez, Melchor points out her frustration with the term as nowadays it can lead people to focus more on the fantasy aspects of novels and less on the reality that they were influenced by.

Melchor notes that despite her use of shocking language and depiction of extreme violence, what happens in her novel is very much real. Her influence by magical realism is evident in her depiction of the setting, a dark and scary “paradise” but her strong use of colloquialism and dialogue highlight the reality of it all.

“Paradais” is not a book I would recommend with an ease of mind. Yet, it is a portrayal of reality that should no longer be ignored, especially by powerful institutions such as Stanford. It sheds light on humanity’s frustrating incapability to act against systemic oppression and mocks our idea of a false reality that manipulates us to believe this oppression has long been solved.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Leyla Yilmaz '25 is a writer for the Arts & Life section. She is from Istanbul, Turkey and a prospective Biology major who enjoys frequent trips to the bookstore and collecting cacti. Contact the Daily's Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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