The Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño passed away in 2003, but his specter still haunts the literary world. Bolaño, a singular Latin American genius beloved by the literati, left a massive vacuum after his untimely death, and publishers have been trying to fill it ever since. This has been a great boon to Spanish-language authors whose work was plucked from the provincial world of Latin American letters and now reaches a wide readership in translation.

The search for Bolaño’s literary heir has also been a blessing for American readers, as brilliant contenders such as Valeria...

The Chilean poet and novelist Roberto Bolaño passed away in 2003, but his specter still haunts the literary world. Bolaño, a singular Latin American genius beloved by the literati, left a massive vacuum after his untimely death, and publishers have been trying to fill it ever since. This has been a great boon to Spanish-language authors whose work was plucked from the provincial world of Latin American letters and now reaches a wide readership in translation.

The search for Bolaño’s literary heir has also been a blessing for American readers, as brilliant contenders such as Valeria Luiselli and César Aira are now published by major American presses, adding some much-needed spice to year-end reading lists. The proliferation of Bolaño imitators has been a net positive for an increasingly staid literary world, but, on occasion, an abominable little book like Fernanda Melchor’s novel Paradais sneaks out. Its very existence calls into question the search for the next Bolaño.

Paradais, Melchor’s second novel to be translated into English (by Sophie Hughes) — following the 2020 Booker-Prize nominated Hurricane Season — clocks in at a miserly 128 pages, for which the publisher wants $20. It’s somehow both undercooked and overdone, with a repetitive tone and militant stylistic consistency. Paradais takes place in Mexico and follows the exploits of two young men: sixteen-year-old Polo, an angry gardener from a broken home, and Franco, an overweight rich kid who’s obsessed with his neighbor, Señora Marian. From the first few pages, as Polo calls Franco “fatboy” or “fat fuck,” it’s clear that Paradais is going to be one of those novels in which grittiness features prominently.

Many Bolaño imitators, lacking the Chilean master’s stylistic prowess and ear for dialogue, overcompensate with unpleasantness, so I wasn’t surprised that Melchor, a Mexican journalist knee-deep in South American squalor, immediately presents Paradais as a gritty narrative. The elite audience that reads these journalistic literary novels certainly expects grit and grime, and this incentivizes authors to lay it on thick. Still, as Melchor is critically acclaimed, I was expecting to be surprised. Would the novel rise above its coarse conceit?

The novel’s title is taken from the luxury apartment complex, Paradais, where Franco lives with his grandparents and where Polo, who’s from the poverty-stricken town Progreso on the “other side of the river,” works. Paradais is narrated through Polo’s point of view, and he spares no one — including Franco — from his brutal observations. It’s fair to say that Polo despises rich people almost as much as he does himself. Much of Paradais’s tone comes from Polo’s rage-induced self-loathing, its masculine cadences expressed by Melchor’s bruising prose: “He could never say no to that lard-ass when he waved at him from the window; he didn’t want to put an end to their drinking sessions down on the dock no matter how much that prick did his head in, no matter how sick Polo was of his bullshit and his endless obsession with the neighbor, who fatboy had fallen for that afternoon in late May…”

Polo and Franco come together one afternoon after they both escape a kid’s birthday party at Paradais and end up at the dock on the edge of the property. Polo is tired of cleaning up after partygoers and Franco bolts because bullies were pelting him with almonds. The two outcasts connect over their alienation, and a toxic partnership — not a friendship — is born. Polo detests Franco, but not as much as his squalid home life, so after work he delays the trip across the river and drinks with his fellow repugnant outcast.

It’s during these initial interactions that Paradais’s predictable plot begins to take shape, as well as its telegraphed ending. Polo may be a boozehound, but Franco is a far more dangerous fiend, one growing increasingly obsessed with his well-to-do neighbor. Over drinking sessions, a plan is hatched to get Franco closer to Señora Marian and consummate his obsession.

The problem with Paradais isn’t the predictable plot — all these gritty novels end in disaster — but the one-note style and tone that predictably caters to an elite audience titillated by foreign horrors. The result is a book that reads like an extended riff on squalor and depravity, but the depraved elements aren’t interesting in any new way. Franco, predictably, is porn-obsessed and heading down a road toward sexual violence. Polo sleeps on the floor and hates his mother and the knocked-up cousin who took his room. While Franco dreams of Señora Marian, Polo dreams of joining his male cousin’s gang of vandals. Yawn. Melchor is technically skilled — her prose is tight and her ability to assume a young male point of view is admirable — but Paradais is utterly predictable in tone and style. It starts high-pitched and humorless and it ends in that same manner, with the would-be shocking ending telegraphed from the start. A book should either be pleasurable or surprising in some fashion, whether aesthetically or stylistically. Paradais fails on both accounts and, in doing so, exposes the generic limitations of one-note grittiness.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2022 World edition.