The Murder of a Witch

The Murder of a Witch

In Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, women might be agents of their own lives, but we see with grim acuity where the fear of such agency can lead.

A man lies in bed in Veracruz, Mexico. (Eduardo Acierno Photography 2010 All Rights Reserved)

Hurricane Season
by Fernanda Melchor
translated by Sophie Hughes
New Directions, 2020, 224 pp.

Several years ago, a local Veracruz paper carried news of a horrific murder. A woman had been found mutilated, floating face up in the river. It was yet another case of femicide in a country with one of the highest rates in the world—a rate that has doubled in the last five years. Mexican activists have recently ramped up the scale and urgency of decades-long protests against officials and their reluctance, or in some cases active resistance, to address the problem: this past spring, thousands of Mexican women went on strike in the capital to protest the ongoing violence. The woman murdered in Veracruz had been known locally as “the Witch.” She was killed by her ex-lover after he became convinced that she was bewitching him to force him to return to her side.

When Mexican journalist and author Fernanda Melchor came across the story, she thought about traveling to the town and writing an investigative account of the murder—her own version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Instead, she wrote a novel, Hurricane Season, published this year and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Set in the imagined town of La Matosa, recognizable in its details as a version of Veracruz, the story begins with a band of young boys, carrying a pail of rocks for an unknown “battle,” who come across “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.” The dead woman, the Witch, had disappeared as hurricane season approached—just as her mother, who had also been known as the Witch, had vanished years before amid the equally devastating hurricane of 1978. This is one of many repetitions in Hurricane Season, where traditions of physical brutality, unhappy liaisons, and broken dreams of escape are passed down between generations, like family heirlooms.

The beginning scene is the shortest of the book’s eight breathless, ranting chapters, which distend out into space and move backward and forward in time. Each chapter foregrounds one of several interrelated characters in La Matosa. There is the young Yesenia who struggles to support her siblings and seethes against her grandmother’s obvious preference for her indolent cousin Luismi, one of the Witch’s ex-lovers, whom she witnesses whisking the corpse into a car. There is Luismi’s new lover, the thirteen-year-old Norma, who is carrying her stepfather’s child, and will end up in the hospital after an abortion gone awry; Luismi’s stepfather Munra, who inadvertently abets the gang of young men preparing to make the Witch answer for her power over them; and another member of the gang, the angry and repressed Brando.

While Hurricane Season is structured as a kind of murder mystery, it’s not exactly a whodunnit. The guilty party is more or less clear from the start. Instead, the novel gradually traces the social and economic relations of La Matosa as they swirl around the figure of the Witch: a trans woman whose sexual power over the men in town is not enough, in the end, to save her.

Brando is both repulsed by and attracted to the Witch. He and his friends go to her dilapidated home for alcohol- and drug-soaked parties, and they project their desires, fears, and prejudices onto her body. For the local women, by contrast, the Witch is a rare medical and psychological resource. They visit her to address pains, pregnancies, and problems. The Witch is a captive audience for their “sniveling tales of woe, their strife, the aches and pains, their dreams of dead relatives and the spats between those still alive.” Melchor’s narrative voice here is unsparing, as it is for all the locals.

Unfolding in long, unwieldy phrases, the narrative of Hurricane Season often recalls the heady modernist monologues of an Italo Svevo or Thomas Bernhard novel, transposed into a profanity-ridden vernacular. In one representative scene, Luismi’s mother Chabela gives Norma her definition of motherhood, before taking her to the Witch to address her unwanted pregnancy:

You know what I’m talking about, Clarita, you watched your mom clock up the kids, one after the other like a fucking curse, and all because she couldn’t get enough, don’t try and tell me otherwise—all because she was a horny bitch, and a dumb one at that, for believing those assholes were going to help her, because when push comes to shove it’s you who has to bust your balls and squeeze the little fuckers out, then bust your balls to look after them, then bust them some more to pay for them while your fuckwit husband hits up the bars and rolls in when it fucking well suits him.

One does not envy the task of acclaimed translator Sophie Hughes in finding equivalents for the luxuriously inventive insults and curses on which the characters regularly rely. It is not quite Hughes’s fault if phrases like “motherfucking bitch” fail to capture the full resonance of the profanities in Spanish, a language rich in offenses having to do with the mother.

While there is some shared ground here with the playful and even parodic aspects of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé’s 1986 novel loosely based on a slave woman tried for witchcraft in seventeenth-century Salem, Melchor does even less to recuperate her demonized woman. The Witch is gloriously peculiar but almost pathetic, even as the power the village men ascribe to her is demonic and abstract. In their imaginations, she is at times the infanticidal ghost La Llorona, at others the malevolent haunter La Niña de Blanco; a rumor circulates that she is hiding gold somewhere in her decaying house, though she claims to live off rent from sugarcane plots farmed by the Mill Workers Union (it is in the mill’s irrigation canal that her body will be found). Hurricane Season also charts the aftermath of quite modern provincial expropriation, in the form of the predatory purchases of the Oil Company, which swept into town in the wake of the 1978 hurricane. The Company monopolizes the local ecosystem, and the unionized jobs on its wells, among the only decent ones in town, are coveted. Luismi holds out for one of his lovers, an engineer for the Company, to hook him up; others recognize that the Company’s distant disregard and nepotism make that wish, as Munra calls it, “a load of bullshit that the kid had swallowed whole.”

Still, in the village, the Witch appears to be one of the few in control, or at least with some level of clout. Taking the place of her mother after the latter’s disappearance, she offers a shred of continuity amid the exploitative transformations of provincial La Matosa. She can get rid of an unwanted fetus; she puts a curse on Luismi (so he believes) when he ends their affair and shacks up with Norma. Only when she is assaulted, tortured, murdered, and thrown into the river can the killers finally be sure they have regained the upper hand. Women, cis and trans, might be agents of their own lives—and of their own reproductive power—but the novel uncovers, with grim acuity, where the fear of such agency can lead.

 

One can imagine a version of this novel in which Melchor rides the recent wave of popularity in sorcery and witchcraft. Today, e-marketplaces peddle potions, hexes, and oils, while recent books in a blossoming subgenre bear titles like Witchery: Embrace the Witch Within; Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power; and France’s bestselling Witches: The Unvanquished Power of Women. Melchor rejects this cheery reclamation of the label. In Hurricane Season’s far bleaker view, the story of the modern witch cannot be told apart from an account of sexual violence and exploitation, in both the realms of social reproduction and waged labor.

Hurricane Season evokes Silvia Federici’s definition of the witch as “the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy.” Federici’s Caliban and the Witch sought, among many other things, to account for “why the rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against Women” in the form of witch hunts that swept Europe and the American colonies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this period, the witch took various forms: “the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.”

Like other texts of the Marxist-feminist tradition, Caliban retheorized categories like primitive accumulation and the “free” laborer by scrutinizing the role of social reproduction. Building on work that studied the sexual division of labor in modern society and the way it masked women’s work, Federici showed how women’s oppression was not just an untimely holdover from feudalism but played a key role during and after the rise of capitalism. In her analysis, the protagonist of this story is not the waged proletarian but the wageless and thus unrecognized female body—the body that, for women, has played an analogous role to the factory for men.

In Europe, state-sponsored witch hunts offered a means to break any autonomy women held over their reproductive power in order to promote population growth. By criminalizing birth control and sexuality outside procreation, and demonizing and excising midwives from the scene of birth, they set the stage for a more oppressive and rigorous sexual division of labor. Yet witch hunts also traveled to and mutated in the New World, where fears about witches and the devil played out in a variety of contexts, including the racialized slave plantation system of the Caribbean and the rigidly hierarchical marriage systems imposed in Mexico and Peru. Melchor’s novel depicts traces of the encounter between European, indigenous, and African belief systems. The hurricane of 1978 not only kills the elder Witch but also, in the mudslides that follow, blankets the ruins of pre-Colombian temples in the hills where the younger Witch harvests herbs for her potions and salves.

In Hurricane Season, where witchcraft is no longer just a cisgender phenomenon, the violence carried out against the Witch isn’t simply an effort to fend off threats to procreation. Luismi and Brando’s friends spend as much time bragging about the women they have fucked as lingering by the railway tracks where they pay for blowjobs from “rent-boy homos.” They ridicule Brando until he starts to join in, rigorously dividing and delineating what kind of sex does and does not make one a “fag.” In this intensely homophobic subculture, being queer is justified by using women as pawns and shields. One of the character’s lovers tortures girls with impunity: in town, everyone has been sharing a video of his exploits on their phones. As the journalist Lydiette Carrión, who has written about Mexican femicides, told Seth Harp in a recent article for Harper’s, “When it’s a femicide, when corpses are mutilated, it doesn’t have so much to do with her. It’s a message between them, within the band.”

 

In interviews, Melchor has described the changes in Veracruz since the government’s war on the narcos, as people have left the streets and gone inside. She wants her readers to see the place as “at once luminous and shadowy, joyous and depressing”—a rotting setting, but one packed with stories that circulate mostly orally, around the dinner table, yet are never delved into with greater depth. By neglecting, for the most part, the revelatory dénouement of a crime procedural, Hurricane Season burrows into the trauma but also the living, beating heart of such events. In the months since the novel’s release, it has become easier to understand such a vision of our modern cities and towns as poisoned and sick, tainted by lead and disease as much as by racism and misogyny—but also as sites where new and better forms of relationships might spontaneously, then deliberately, coalesce.

Yet Hurricane Season does not offer a pointed critique of power: rather, it ironizes male cluelessness as a failure of imagination and interpretation. The sequence of events that concludes with the Witch’s murder begins with Luismi’s terrified discovery of a small object buried in a hole in the ground outside his hut. Munra is convinced it is a “work” of witchcraft: it reminds him of the dead toad and floating garlic in a mayonnaise jar he had seen once as a child. Luismi thinks it proves the Witch is putting hexes on him and Norma to split them up and kill the baby she’s carrying—a baby that will give him the cover he needs for the pursuit of his more authentic desires. The truth is less sensational, and quietly sadder. The men never consider that the Witch might have given Norma the tools to end her pregnancy, and that in a system made for them and not for her, the teenager must deal with and recover from the abortion on her own. The men don’t get it, and they never have. They can kill with impunity all the same.


Victoria Baena is a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Yale.


Lima