A Terrible Beauty is Born: Fernanda Melchor’s “Hurricane Season,” Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes

By Emma B. B. Doyle

Hurricane cover

The title of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season (La temporada de huracanes), translated by Sophie Hughes, takes its name from the many months in Mexico when you can look up at the sky and expect it to explode at any moment. This reliable forecast of disaster carries a similar tension to the anticipation of violence in Melchor’s novel. Hughes’ translation is the first in English of any of Melchor’s three books, and she has executed that responsibility superbly.

Written in eight uninterrupted paragraphs that tumble out as foul-mouthed streams of consciousness from each of Melchor’s troubled characters, Hurricane Season begins with the discovery of the town Witch’s dead body decomposing in an irrigation canal. Her brutal murder sets off a rodeo into the minds of one character after another, moving back and forth through time, until we end up back at her death.

The Witch, we learn, is actually the younger Witch ––a strange, freakishly strong, antisocial young woman who dresses in all black and slavishly carries out the bidding of her mother, the Old Witch. Mother and daughter are both the subjects of conspiratorial gossip in La Matosa, the town where the novel takes place. The Old Witch is said to have sex with the Devil every night, to curse those who wronged her. It is said she is filthy rich in gold and trinkets that are buried in her garden and in hidden spots around the house.

When the Old Witch dies, she fades from the collective memory of the town until all the stories about her are transmuted onto her daughter:

all those bloodcurdling stories the townswomen used to tell them when they were kids: stories about La Llorona… or the story of La Niña de Blanco, the ghostly little girl who appears when you disobey your grandmother and slip out of the house at night, who follows you and, when you’re least expecting it, calls your name making you turn around only to die of shock on seeing her pallid, skeletal face; and in their minds the Witch was a little like that, only infinitely more exciting because she existed in real life. (19)

And yet nearly every woman in town has crossed the Witches’ doorstep and one point or another to be cured: of their unwanted fetuses, of their cheating or abusive husbands, of their headaches and bad luck. They generally come at night so as to not be seen. The Witch attends to these women with herbal medicines in exchange for food, or sometimes for nothing at all. The “girls from the highway…were the only ones the Witch chose to help for free, without charging a peso, which was just as well because most…of them didn’t own so much as the towels they used to wipe away the bodily fluids of the men who screwed them” (22).

But as Melchor moves from one character’s mind to the next, the story gets more complicated. The truth becomes unwieldy and multifaceted, as characters have their grudges and hurt to avenge or flee. I won’t reveal what we learn, since these new perspectives yield surprises that would be a shame to give away, but each revelation brings us closer to the tragedy that is both the beginning and ending of the book. Each character is connected to the next, each is the subject or perpetrator of some kind of violence, and is often both. The central figure connecting all of them is Luismi, a “useless prick” (28) in the eyes of his cousin Yesina, but a golden boy to their grandmother, who physically abuses both of them. Norma, another abused child, is a thirteen-year-old runaway, pregnant with her stepfather’s baby, saved by Luismi from some traffickers who were eyeing her. Most difficult to empathize with is Bruno, whose agony and shame over his own queer desires externalize as violence. He is as much in love with Luismi as he is fixated on killing him, and his confusion over whether his desire is to possess or destroy unravels as the central tension in the novel.

All the characters are tethered to the murder of the Witch, both the original sin and final result of a series of actions that reads like a Shakespearian tragedy, barreling towards its inevitable finale. As such, Hurricane Season is at its heart the dramatization of a femicide, a word popularized by Latin American feminists to label women who are murdered daily in unfathomably violent ways as hate crimes. Fernanda Melchor’s home state of Veracruz led the country in femicides last year.[1] These murders leave many wondering how such a thing could have happened. Hurricane Season is, if not quite an answer to the question, a commitment to try and answer it.

Melchor explained that “something happened in these boys’ lives that explodes and the people they have closest to them are women…the murder of the Witch turns out to be a kind of scapegoat for all the rage that this group of boys has inside…in the end, there is no real motive” (my translation). Here lies the brilliance of Hurricane Season: without writing a political scourge or in fact ever leaving the confines of her characters’ minds, Melchor manages to form a complex argument about structural violence and its consequences. The boys don’t know what to do with their rage, grown from abuse and internalized homophobia, poverty and a cruel State, and it ultimately results in horrific violence.

Melchor does not shy away from generating empathy for the killers, a dangerous game in a country where these “crimes of passion,” or crimes that occur from a sudden fit of rage rather than being premeditated, are often treated with impunity. And yet she plays it deftly, using the unreliability of her narrators to weave together a story of pain inflicted not only by those around them, but by a government and a society that operate with cruelty and greed. That said, blame for the murder is never lifted from the shoulders of the killers.

Hurricane Season functions exclusively through internal monologues, and thus the language is dirty and unfiltered, with occasional outbursts into different voices. In a passage about a landslide that devastated La Matosa in 1978, the narrator describes people arriving in town to seek help, “livestock and surviving children in tow, seeking refuge wherever the government would put them,” suddenly switching into the scornful voice of the State: “These people and all their crap, their whining and their lists of dead and missing persons, among whom the Witch and her accursed daughter were counted” (15). Sophie Hughes never falls behind the fast paced changes in voice, and indeed has rendered a fluid and idiosyncratic translation from this linguistically complex book.

The Spanish language is thoroughly regional. Not only is Mexican Spanish littered with words that an Argentine or a Spaniard might not comprehend, but Melchor’s home state of Veracruz has a distinct vocabulary from, say, Mexico City. Hughes works hard to be faithful to the essence of this corner of language, and as a British translator her interpretation might actually be the perfect blend of foreignizing and colloquial for American Anglophone readers. Melchor performs a linguistic faithfulness of her own by honoring the lenguaje popular of working-class Veracruz, and not bending it to be more standardized.

Mexican slang, on full display in La temporada de huracanes, is not an additive to Mexican Spanish, but rather is the basis of the language. (This may be true of other hispano-nationalities, or indeed of other languages entirely, but Mexican Spanish being the Spanish I speak, I cannot fully attest to that.) Swear words and dirty language form their own intricate network within slang. Take as an example the word chingar, or ‘to fuck.’ Chingar has a vast emotional and moral range. There is in fact a 190-page dictionary devoted to the word called El Chingonario. Chingar can, depending on how one deploys it, imply deep admiration or total disgust. It can express the extremes of the world, but is also used casually with parents and coworkers. When I returned to live in Mexico City at age eighteen after being away for ten years, I had to relearn a whole new language––the underbelly of the Spanish I thought I knew––in order to be able to communicate as an adult.

It is therefore no small task to translate a book littered with slang and swear words, and Sophie Hughes has done the incredible in making it sound natural. Forced to mine the English language for colorful hybrid words that don’t get enough use, Hughes shook the dust off some real gems. “Fat-mouthed,” for instance, or “pipsqueak,” “shit-stirring harpy,” and “crumbsnatcher” (28, 181, 33, 34). “Cunt” also gets a lot of use from the British Hughes, who manages to retain the richness of Mexican slang while not alienating her readers.

But Hughes’ most impressive feat is her preservation of the razor-sharp tension in Melchor’s ability to write about violence with empathy. There are long passages from the perspective of murderers and child rapists that never fail to maintain humanity. They are difficult to read, but for this reason never feel like commodified pain.

The book’s epigraph, from W. B. Yeats, holds its tension, acting almost as a warning to the reader: “Transformed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born.” For there are also brief moments in Hurricane Season where the clouds part and we get a glimpse of fierce joy, love, and desire. In these moments, Melchor transcends the darkest corners of human nature to find empathy. Here, Melchor’s writing takes on a staggering beauty, which makes the inevitable ending we know is coming all the  more tragic.

Melchor, Fernanda. Hurricane SeasonTranslated by Sophie Hughes. New Directions, 2020.


Emma B.B. Doyle is a translator, puppeteer, and cook who graduated in Comparative Literature from Oberlin College in 2019. She is currently translating an erotic memoir from Spanish and weathering the pandemic by growing mushrooms and baking bread in New York.


[1] 163 femicides were recorded in the state of Veracruz, but activists posit that the actual number is far higher. In Mexico as a whole, the recorded number was 973 in 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One comment

  1. Excellent review, well written and thoughtful, made me want to read this book!

Leave a Reply to REBECCA CHACE Cancel reply

%d bloggers like this: