Inside the Threshing Machine
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (trans. Sophie Hughes)
Politics is a threshing machine that sorts “valuable” lives from “worthless” ones. Even when dignified as “the art of the possible”, or abstracted as a sausage-making exercise, it finally rains down on individual lives and terminates in experiences on the ground. Always, ultimately, the problem it addresses is the problem of which experiences to assign to whom, and so, as it acquires efficacy through various institutions, it rearranges the world in a way that offers a complex answer to a simple question: who deserves to be spared misfortune and who should be abandoned to suffer it? Those whose lives are valuable are equipped to brace against the impact of chance. Those without are left defenceless and exposed.
Okay, yes, that’s a reductive take. Politics isn’t such a binary phenomenon. Let’s say, then, that the thresher sifts through countless lives and evaluates them in gradations along a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum: lives to be extinguished by the state. At the opposite end: lives to be gilded, fattened on government largesse withheld from the multitude. Scattered across the middle: lives to be extinguished by the neglect or non-intervention of authorities, lives to be coerced into compliance or subjection, lives not valuable enough to bother with, lives to reshape, lives to repair, lives to maintain as-is, lives to embroider with token luxuries. The difficulty, of course, is that there’s no formula for pinpointing the value of any one life. How to prioritise the expenditure of attention and energy, never mind the investment of financial resources? From the left comes the voice of liberal humanism: all lives are equally valuable, and innately so. From the right comes market fundamentalism: individual net worth represents a shorthand calculation, quantifying — if crudely — the exchange value of one’s contribution to a society. But it’s impossible for a single observer to parse this thorny situation. Politics is a chaotic way of parsing it collectively. Political agency, then, is the capacity to assert and defend one’s own value, independent of expedient formulae, and power is the reservation of the right to decide whether to heed the assertions of others, or ignore them, or cut them off without warning and command silence.
Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a novel about the threshing machine of politics in the lives of people who struggle to recognise it as such, much less to name and discuss it, though they absolutely register its effects on their experiences. While the novel is Melchor’s third, it’s her first to be made available in English, in a fierce and forceful translation by Sophie Hughes, and every word bristles with indignation at the politics in which its characters are immured. Not the bickering of spin doctors, not the argy-bargy of international delegates, not the supplications of diplomats or the pontifications of op-ed blowhards. Hurricane Season maintains a tight focus on just one tiny village in Mexico, a superstitious place blighted by “poverty, destitution and ignorance”, and page by page it forensically examines the daily deprivations of the townsfolk. The picture is unremittingly bleak. La Matosa is the kind of place where a grown man can remain haunted by memories of finding “a work of witchcraft” outside his boyhood home, “one of those extra-large mayonnaise jars with an immense toad floating inside, a dead, decomposed toad swimming in a murky liquid”. It’s also a place where the family of an asthmatic child try to help him survive the winter by blanketing his bed with clothes, and bathing him in the feeble warmth of a lightbulb, only to wake up one morning and find that he has died in his sleep. What hope for future generations when material resources are insufficient and the black arts are taken to be a greater cause for concern?
The impetus for Melchor’s narrative is the discovery of a corpse in a ditch. The mangled body belongs to a modern-day medicine woman, an occult practitioner known locally as “the Witch”. Who killed her? It could have been anyone. Over the course of eight chapters, each revolving around a different person, the novel assembles a chain of connections between half-a-dozen main characters. It moves on from the victim to the young men suspected of murdering her, and moves on again to others, mostly women, who are morally implicated in the crime even if not directly involved in it. But Hurricane Season isn’t really a murder mystery. It’s more like Winesburg, Ohio (1919) rewritten by László Krasznahorkai: the Witch is its George Willard, a presence passing through others’ stories, and her death more or less serves as a pretext for the narratorial eye to roam among the townsfolk, to survey the squalor of their days. Or perhaps that should be “the narratorial hurricane”: there is not a single moment of calm, of respite, at the centre of this roving carnage.
The comparison to Krasznahorkai isn’t an idle one. As each of the novel’s chapters takes the form of a single enormous paragraph, Melchor’s sentences unspool in ways reminiscent of Krasznahorkai’s ponderous yet mesmerising prose. Running on for hundreds of words at a stretch, they are populated with dozens of commas and often spread out over more than a page before a full stop allows the reader to draw breath:
all the while Norma lay there on her back with her dress hitched up to her breasts and her head next to the rotten apple driven through with a razor-sharp knife, and when at last she lifted her head the Witch was shuffling around the room looking for things, moving pots, taking the lids off jars and bottles and muttering who knows what prayers or diabolical spells with her fluty, raspy voice, and all that time Chabela continued to fill the unbreathable air in the kitchen with the smoke from her cigarettes and to yak on to the Witch about her new lover…
But Melchor’s sentences are also slightly different in their mechanics, and therefore in their cumulative effect. Whereas Krasznahorkai is endlessly additive — one thing after another, on and on and on, spiralling out of control — Melchor is more interested in refinement, or retrospective qualification: she often places a subject in the middle of a sentence, rather than at the beginning, and then uses the second half to sharpen the reader’s impression of it. And, perhaps for this reason, Hurricane Season offers one of the conventional pleasures that don’t find a place in the novels of Krasznahorkai: depth of character, space for pathos. So, then, the comparison to Winesburg, Ohio isn’t idle either. As Melchor’s narrative works its way outwards from the Witch, it comes to dwell on a pair of characters who assume a central position despite the flimsiness of their connection to the dead woman. Norma is a quiet girl, just barely a teenager, preyed upon by her step-father until she falls pregnant with his child. Luismi is the sensitive boy who becomes the one person in Norma’s life able to offer her affection, though he has no grasp on his true feelings and no willingness to admit them. Their stories are tender, excruciating, touching, nauseating, beautiful, and tragic: narratives as captivating as anyone could hope for.
That said, Hurricane Season stacks the odds against itself in its appeal to potential readers. Its unrelenting attentiveness to the filth and trauma of life in La Matosa will likely to turn off readers looking for a story embroidered with easy political commentary. Equally, Melchor’s torrent of prose is likely to make it a daunting prospect for readers who might entertain a more nuanced politics, but who want it to be easily accessible. And then there’s the risk that readers who aren’t repelled by what Melchor depicts, and don’t flinch from her blistering style, will value the novel on sentimental grounds: it could surely be read as poverty porn, subjecting the gross effects of globalisation to a unidirectional critique designed to gratify liberal sympathies. Actually, though, Hurricane Season is something more than a panorama of a powerless people brutalised by global forces. It zooms in on one point on that spectrum of valuable and worthless lives — the point at which an entire community can be devalued enough to fall outside the attention of the state — and then it looks closely at the building and breaking of political bonds within that point, intra-communally. In other words, while Hurricane Season is indeed sceptical of the petrochemical industry and other such global forces that have tainted life in La Matosa, it also peers deeper into the politics of the place itself, to see how the pressure of greater powers causes politics to fracture. What it suggests is that, when global politics touches individual lives and terminates in experiences on the ground, a place like La Matosa belongs to the modern world only in a superficial sense. Functionally, it’s medieval.
Especially in situations of extreme scarcity, economic imperatives distort the relationships between people. As a result, virtually every relationship between any two characters in Hurricane Season is framed as an economic transaction, and is understood in terms of how much each character owes to others and is owed in return. Doña Tina, for instance, “squander[s] money she [doesn’t] have” on an extravagant funeral for her son, Maurilio, to give him “the send-off that, to her mind, he deserved, a funeral the likes of which no one in town had seen for years”. In doing so, she incurs a debt that may take her forever to pay off using “the money she earn[s] selling fresh fruit juice from a tricycle stationed on the outskirts of Villa by the petrol station”. Why take on the debt? Why forfeit decades of life? Because, for Doña Tina, Maurilio is worth it: she asserts the value of a life neglected by others, through the mechanism of an economic transaction. But her grandchildren don’t attend the funeral; they’re out of town, “forced to head north on their own, north to the oilfields, where rumour had it there was plenty of work”. Their stance towards Maurilio is one of comparatively lower esteem, but it, too, is asserted via an economic transaction, through their prioritisation of earnings over participation in a ceremonial send-off.
Other relationships are similarly poisoned by economic hunger, which is the experiential consequence of political starvation. One of the murder suspects, for instance, is paid “hard cash” by “the Party, the government that is”, in exchange “for every person he got to join the [mayoral] campaign”, but this boost to his hip pocket distorts his relationship with Luismi. Luismi is hanging out for “the famous gig with the Company… down in the Palogacho oil fields”, a job that his friend regards as “a goddamn pipe dream which the kid had pulled out of his ass”. Why the disdain? Because Luismi’s hope for that job — jam tomorrow — leads him to refuse his friend’s money, which is a show of disrespect. Elsewhere, resentment brews when people in need of assistance find that help is available only from someone who won’t offer it as an act of charity. It was the business of the Witch to terminate the unwanted pregnancies of the young women of La Matosa — business in the literal sense of services rendered for remuneration. It was also her business, allegedly, to inflict hexes and curses upon those townsfolk who had wronged others — again in exchange for money, providing supernatural redress to an aggrieved clientele. As a result of her doings, which were themselves the result of economic desperation, this marginalised woman was uniquely privy to her neighbours’ greatest vulnerabilities, and was despised for profiting from them. Though she herself was destitute, she monetised other people’s secret shames, and for this reason, as much as they loathed her and ostracised her, the townsfolk also knew that they might need her should their lives turn especially sour.
From an off-kilter vantage point, one might say that the Witch was killed because she was wealthy, because she had in fact accumulated a reserve of considerable currency. Shame, after all, is a currency in La Matosa, often more valuable than the peso, as a people with virtually no money defaults to making transactions in a medieval honour economy. It isn’t so much the cash that keeps the government apparatchik involved with the Party; it’s that he has “made friends with people in politics, important people who would acknowledge him in the street and wave and call him Don Isaías”. Nor is it the promise of work that keeps Luismi dreaming of the oil fields; it’s “all the perks that came with working under the union”. Nor is it the benefit of food and shelter that keeps the beleaguered Yesenia slaving away in Doña Tina’s house; it’s that, “[a]s the eldest, it fell on her shoulders to look after the house while Grandma was out working”. Just as medieval societies usually broke apart into the three estates of nobility, clergy, and peasantry, so the peasants of La Matosa break apart into those who aim to win the favour of the de facto nobility — that is, the government; those who do aim to placate or ally with the de facto clergy — that is, either the police or the drug cartels; and those who turn inward, indrawn, and aim to improve their lot by waging daily war against their fellows.
How does the honour economy play out at the level of that last, lowest estate? In the absence of money and material plenty, exchange values lose their tangible form. Every person has obligations to fulfil and ethics to uphold, but both of those things are tested, day after day, in interactions with others. The most demanding interactions, in Hurricane Season, are those that break open against ossified gender dynamics, fluid sexual identities, and the unspoken requirements of masculinity and machismo. Honour accrues to those who are best able to weather the societal storm while also fulfilling their obligations and upholding their ethics: binding themselves to their word, for instance, or resisting pressure to cross moral lines for the sake of convenience or esteem. With the accrual of honour comes the respect of peers, which can be traded in exchange for favours in the marketplace of face-to-face politics. With the depletion of honour — through sloth, through compromise, through being forced into a subservient position — comes disrespect, the incremental build-up of shame, political impoverishment, a life of diminishing value to others. The Witch was the sole exception to this situation, being both free of it and doubly bound: her value to others was matched by the depth of her dishonour. In effect, she fell into the black market of the honour economy, much as she served the black market of the monetary economy, which is why she became a target of reprobation and was perhaps doomed to be. Her days were likely always numbered; she was always haunted by people who wanted her head to roll.
Because Hurricane Season is finally concerned with more than the fate of the Witch, more than resolving a whodunit, and more than using fiction to shine a light on poverty in rural Mexico, it avoids many of the pitfalls lying in wait for a novel with its premise. It could have been a book that meandered through the requisite motions — an untimely death, unresolved questions; the dutiful engineering of sorrow for people whose lives are impossibly constrained — but it reaches fearlessly for something more than what its premise requires it to deliver. With its breathless, propulsive style, it sweeps along through the moving stories of Norma, Luismi, and others, as well as through a political critique that plumbs the darkest depths of the thresher. What happens to people who fall into the gaps and get lost in the gears, and end up wedged together in tiny spaces outside the view of the machine’s operators? Hurricane Season tries to see, tries to recover them. What it recognises is that politics, in distinguishing valuable lives from worthless ones, actually ejects those without value from its own remit as a totalising phenomenon. They are forced to live in another world embedded within this one, a world that runs on different rules so that a person’s value basically depends on the strength of their Machiavellian inclinations. It’s a grim situation, depicted here without mercy, but explored with supreme intelligence and an acuity that salvages shards of insight from a storm of utmost despair.