The 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions/Mahler & LeWitt Studios Essay Prize is open to submissions until 15 March 2020. Submit here.
Published 19 February 2020
French paperback with flaps, 232 pages
They reached the canal along the track leading up from the river, their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare. There were five of them, their ringleader the only one in swimming trunks: red shorts that blazed behind the parched crops of the cane fields, still low in early May. The rest of the troop trailed behind him in their underpants, all four caked in mud up to their shins, all four taking turns to carry the pail of small rocks they’d taken from the river that morning; all four scowling and fierce and so ready to give themselves up for the cause that not even the youngest, bringing up the rear, would have dared admit he was scared, the elastic of his slingshot pulled taut in his hands, the rock snug in the leather pad, primed to strike anything that got in his way at the very first sign of an ambush, be that the caw of the bienteveo, perched unseen like a guard in the trees behind them, the rustle of leaves being thrashed aside, or the whoosh of a rock cleaving the air just beyond their noses, the breeze warm and the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts, that made them want to stop and turn round. But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five of them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blow flies, finally recognized what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.
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. She’d always been you, retard, or you, asshole, or you, devil child, if ever the Witch wanted her to come, or to be quiet, or even just to sit still under the table so that she could listen to the women’s maudlin pleas, their snivelling tales of woe, their strife, the aches and pains, their dreams of dead relatives and the spats between those still alive, and money, it was almost always the money, but also their husbands and those whores from the highway, and why do they always walk out on me just when I’ve got my hopes up, they’d blub, what was the point of it all, they’d moan, they might as well be dead, just call it a day, wished they’d never been born, and with the corner of their shawls they’d dry the tears from their faces, which they covered in any case the moment they left the Witch’s kitchen, because they weren’t about to give those bigmouths in town the satisfaction of going around saying how they’d been to see the Witch to plot their revenge against so-and-so, how they’d put a curse on the slut leading their husband astray, because there was always one, always some miserable bitch in town spinning yarns about the girls who, quite innocently, minding their own business, went to the Witch’s for a remedy for indigestion for that dipshit at home clogged up to his nuts on the kilo of crisps he ate in one sitting, or a tea to keep tiredness at bay, or an ointment for tummy troubles, or, let’s be honest, just to sit there awhile and lighten the load, let it all out, the pain and sadness that fluttered hopelessly in their throats. Because the Witch listened, and nothing seemed to shock her, and frankly, what would you expect from a woman they say killed her own husband, Manolo Conde no less, and for money, the old cunt’s money, his house and the land, a hundred hectares of cultivated fields and pastures left to him by his father, or what was left of it after his father had sold it off piece by piece to the leader of the Mill Workers Union so that, from then on, he wouldn’t have to lift a finger, so he could live off his rents and apparently off his so-called businesses, which were always failing, but so vast was the estate that when Don Manolo died there was still a sizeable tract of land left over, with a tidy rental value; so tidy, in fact, that the old man’s sons, two fully grown lads, both out of school, sons by his legitimate wife over in Montiel Sosa, rolled into town the moment they heard the news: heart attack, the doctor from Villa told the boys when they showed up at that house in the middle of the sugar cane fields where the vigil was being held, and right there, in front of everyone, they told the Witch that she had until the next day to pack her bags and leave town, that she was mad if she thought they’d let a slag like her get her hands on their father’s assets: the land, the house, that house which, even after all those years, was still unfinished, as lavish and warped as Don Manolo’s dreams, with its elaborate staircase and banisters decked out in plaster cherubs, its high ceilings where the bats made their roosts, and, hidden somewhere, or so the story went, the money, a shedload of gold coins that Don Manolo had inherited from his father and never banked, not forgetting the diamond, the diamond ring that no one had ever seen, not even the sons, but that was said to hold a stone so big it looked fake, a bona fide heirloom that had belonged to Don Manolo’s grandmother, a certain Señora Chucita Villagarbosa de los Monteros de Conde, and that by both legal and divine right belonged to the boys’ mother, Don Manolo’s real wife, his legitimate wife in the eyes of God and man alike, not to that trollop, that conniving, homicidal upstart, the Witch, who swanned around town like Lady Muck when she was nothing but a tart Don Manolo had dragged out of some jungle hellhole for the sole purpose of living out his basest instincts in the privacy of the plains. An evil woman, it turned out, because, who knows how, some say with the devil in her ear, she had learned of a herb that grew wild up in the mountains, almost at the summit, among the old ruins that, according to those suits from the government, were the ancient tombs of men who’d once lived up there, the first dwellers, there even before those filthy Spaniards who, from their boats, took one look at all that land spread out before them and said finders keepers, this land belongs to us and to the Kingdom of Castile; and the ancients, the few who were left, had to run for the hills and they lost everything, right down to the stones of their temples, which ended up buried in the mountainside in the hurricane of ’78, what with the landslide, the avalanche of mud that swamped more than a hundred locals from La Matosa and the ruins where those herbs were said to grow, the herbs that the Witch boiled up into an odourless, colourless poison so imperceptible that even the 1 8 doctor from Villa concluded Manolo had died of a heart attack, but those pig-headed sons of his swore blind that he’d been poisoned, and later everyone blamed the Witch for the sons’ deaths too, because on the very same day they buried their father, the devil came and took them on the highway, on their way to the cemetery in Villa, heading up the funeral procession; the pair of them died crushed under a stack of metal joists that slid off the truck in front; blood-smeared steel all over the next day’s papers, the whole thing more than a little creepy because no one could explain how such a thing could have happened, how those joists had come loose from the fastening cable and smashed through the windscreen, skewering them both, and there was no shortage of people who put two and two together and blamed the Witch, who said the Witch had put a curse on them, that the evil wench had sold her soul to the devil in exchange for special powers, all to hold on to the house and surrounding land, and it was around then that the Witch locked herself away in the house never to leave again, not by day or night, perhaps for fear the Condes were waiting to take their revenge, or maybe because she was hiding something, a secret she couldn’t let out of her sight, something in the house that she refused to leave unguarded, and she grew thin and pale and just looking her in the eyes sent a chill through you because it was clear she’d gone mad, and it was the women of La Matosa who brought her food in exchange for her help preparing their lotions and potions, concoctions brewed either with the herbs that the Witch grew in her vegetable garden or with the wild plants she sent the women to forage on the mountainside, back when there was still a mountainside to speak of.
The Witch is dead. After a group of children playing near the irrigation canals discover her decomposing corpse, the village of La Matosa is rife with rumours about how and why this murder occurred. As the novel unfolds in a dazzling linguistic torrent, Fernanda Melchor paints a moving portrait of lives governed by poverty and violence, machismo and misogyny, superstition and prejudice. Written with an infernal lyricism that is as affecting as it is enthralling, Hurricane Season, Melchor’s first novel to appear in English, is a formidable portrait of Mexico and its demons, brilliantly translated by Sophie Hughes.
‘Brutal, relentless, beautiful, fugal, Hurricane Season explores the violent mythologies of one Mexican village and reveals how they touch the global circuitry of capitalist greed. This is an inquiry into the sexual terrorism and terror of broken men. This is a work of both mystery and critique. Most recent fiction seems anaemic by comparison.’
— Ben Lerner, author of The Topeka School
‘Fernanda Melchor has a powerful voice, and by powerful I mean unsparing, devastating, the voice of someone who writes with rage, and has the skill to pull it off.’
— Samanta Schweblin, author of Fever Dream
‘Hurricane Season is a tremendously vital piece of work. Searing and urgent and cut through with pain, this is storytelling as reportage; a loud memorial to the unheard victims of a society in crisis. Fernanda Melchor and Sophie Hughes have achieved something remarkable here.’
— Jon McGregor, author of Reservoir 13
‘Propelled by a violent lyricism and stunning immediacy, Hurricane Season maps out a landscape in which social corrosion acquires a mythical shape. This masterful portrayal of contemporary Mexico, so vertiginous and bewitching it pulls you into its spiritual abyss from the opening page, is brilliantly rendered into English by Sophie Hughes. Fernanda Melchor is a remarkable talent.’
— Chloe Aridjis, author of Sea Monsters
‘A bravura performance, teeming with life and fury. Melchor takes a single, brutal act and explodes it, giving voice to the legacies of tragedy and violence within, and daring us to look away.’
— Sam Byers, author of Perfidious Albion
‘Repellent yet compulsive, Hurricane Season is a hell of a force to be reckoned with.’
— Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Pond
‘Not only does Fernanda Melchor write with the violent force that the themes of her investigation demand, but on every page she displays an ear and perspicacity rarely seen in our literature.’
— Yuri Herrera, author of The Transmigration of Bodies
‘Written with pain and enormous skill, in a rhythm at once tearing and hypnotic, Hurricane Season is an account of the wreckage of a forsaken Mexico governed by nightmarish jungle law. An important, brave novel by a writer of extraordinary talent, magnificently translated by Sophie Hughes.’
— Alia Trabucco Zerán, author of The Remainder
‘Melchor experiments with the Latin American NeoBaroque and with European formalism – in the novel, each chapter is sustained in a long paragraph in which sentences only finish when they really and truly can’t carry another clause, articulating a relentless reality in a language openly faithful to that spoken by Mexicans today. Fernanda Melchor isn’t interested in revealing what happened, but rather in providing a way to record what is so hard to articulate.’
— Álvaro Enrigue, author of Sudden Death
‘Melchor wields a sentence like a saber. She never flinches in the bold, precise strokes of Hurricane Season. In prose as precise and breathtaking as it is unsettling, Melchor has crafted an unprecedented novel about femicide in Mexico and how poverty and extreme power imbalances lead to violence everywhere.’
— Idra Novey, author of Those Who Knew
‘Hurricane Season is menacing, highly original and disturbing – Melchor is unafraid to confront the unspeakable.’
— Nicole Flattery, author of Show Them a Good Time
‘Fernanda Melchor is part of a wave of real writing, a multi-tongue, variform, generationless, decadeless, ageless wave, that American contemporary literature must ignore if it is to hold on to its infantile worldview.’
— Jesse Ball, author of Census
Born in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1982, Fernanda Melchor is widely recognized as one of the most exciting new voices of Mexican literature. In 2018, she won the PEN Mexico Award for Literary and Journalistic Excellence and in 2019 the German Anna-Seghers-Preis and the International Literature Award for Hurricane Season.
Sophie Hughes has translated novels by several contemporary Latin American and Spanish authors, including Laia Jufresa and Rodrigo Hasbún. Her translation of Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.