Fernanda Melchor advises us early on in her new collection, “This Is Not Miami,” that “I do not write about tears, armed men or wounded children where they never actually existed.” Tears and hurt children abound, of course, in the city and state of Veracruz, Mexico, and the region has long been rich in armed men: Here comes another pickup full of soldiers in black masks and green vests; they rest their machine guns on the truck bed, their passing presence as quotidian as the open-air market’s heaps of fruit, eggs, chickens, metal parts; they dwindle away on the waterfront avenue named after Comodoro Manuel Azueta.
In 1914, the armed men were American (something like 200 Mexicans were killed by the U.S. Navy); in prior centuries they were pirates and colonialists, all the way back to 1519, when Villa Rica de Veracruz was founded by that conqueror-torturer Hernan Cortés in his hulking ghoul-faced armor of long grinning eye slits. (And never mind the human-sacrificing Aztec overlords.) As for today’s armed men, here to record their doings is Señora Melchor, born in 1982 in this “country where a lie has a better chance of being proven in court than the truth itself.”
Veracruz City has always sweltered, for it sits but a few feet above the level of a tropical sea. The tide ebbs bluish-brown and bluish-gray, smelling of fishy muddiness. Dead dogs stink and everyone sweats. Several pestilences won this place a joyful moniker: “the cemetery of the world.” The Spanish elite lurked inland, leaving Black people, mestizos and ex-conquistadors to do the dirty work.
Now much of Veracruz swelters in vigilantism, thuggery and narco-terrorism. In “This Is Not Miami” we meet a shootout’s helpless witness who finds, “just outside the Montessori school, the mutilated body of a young girl … naked except for a cardboard sign bearing some grim message from her killers.” The even more pleasant title story deals with Dominican stowaways who believe they have made it to Miami. One of them tells the dock workers who are hiding them that his father once owed some people money. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he says, “to watch your father being hacked to death with a machete, to watch your mother being raped.” His destination is New York, where his sister has spied out the killers. There he will chop them up, to avenge his father.
If that’s not cheery enough for you, by all means read about the lynching of a little town’s rapist-murderer, who is caught holding his dead victim facedown in the river. Intimidated by the furious locals, the “municipal agent” tells them: “My colleagues and I, we’ve done our part, and the town’s made its choice, so we can’t very well deny you that choice. … So, are you going to lynch him or not?” Naturally (reader, wouldn’t you?) they burn him alive.
When Sra. Melchor visits the place years later, “no one wants to take us down to the river,” where the atrocity — or, if you prefer, the execution of justice — remains as conspicuous in memory as the city’s stone Olmec heads: immense skull-balls pecked out of coarse dark lava, staring us down on the highway by the airport or in museum courtyards, haunting us with their obdurate alienness.
How true are these stories, which their author prefers to call relatos? They are “based on events that really happened,” she writes in her introduction. When I requested more information, she replied via her publicist: “Either they are personal testimonies … or the result of long interviews with witnesses and informants, all recorded.” No horrific detail is made up. However, her introduction adds, “the heart of these texts is not the incidents themselves, but the impact they had on their witnesses.” This qualification is prudent, first, because in most cases the author is not a witness but a careful, patient auditor of witnesses, and second, because some incidents are supernatural.
“Downtown Veracruz is full of ghosts,” Melchor’s father used to tell her, and it certainly teems with ancient houses inhabited by trees, creepers, mold and squatters. Exploring a few such ruins inspired my own ghost stories — after neighboring residents proffered so many creepily specific anecdotes (none in accord with the others) about the evil powers within them. Veracruz folklore, according to Melchor, “associates all violent deaths with the appearance of ‘restless’ spirits.” In the long and sometimes lyrical “The House on El Estero,” one of my favorites in the collection, she retells her first husband’s supernatural horror experience. He was, she remarks, “a typical Veracruz guy … trained within a culture that mocks the written word and dismisses the archive, preferring … the joyful act of conversing.”
The author, while now the empathetic nonbeliever, is likewise a true daughter of Veracruz. We are told that on Nov. 7, 1991, when she was 9, the 13th Infantry Battalion gunned down seven members of the Federal Judicial Police, perhaps (we never learn why) to prevent the arrest of two Colombian cocaine smugglers in a Cessna — whose landing lights the young Fernanda Melchor very much wanted to be U.F.O.s. Why not? It certainly would have been nicer than the facts.
In addition to bravely presenting dark truths, Melchor writes from a good heart. I admire her compassionate respect for people such as El Fito, who lost his customs job during the financial crisis. After passing a recruitment interview with the Zetas cartel (which included a pistol whipping), he became a cocaine cutter so that he could support his family; every now and then he sends discreet messages to old friends so they know “that his head’s still where it should be, not on a coroner’s table or rotting among the weeds.”
“This Is Not Miami” deals not only with violence but also with how people cope. We learn that during the 1970s, in an enclave of bars and cantinas known as the “Vice Belt,” where a lusty fellow might score “a quick fling with the flirt whose husband would be waiting for you outside with an open straight razor,” there once flourished a dockworker and petty thief named El Ojón, or Bug Eye. He tells Melchor: “Life was tough back then … but … at least we had a place to knock back a few beers together without anyone looking down on us for being laborers.” These humanizing words follow his accounts of brazen cargo theft, bribery and intimidation from big-time crooks, and without them, Bug Eye might come across as a victim, perpetrator or freak. Really, of course, he is just one of us, doing his imperfect best.
One negative thing must be said. The book’s first third is cliché-blighted: “glued to the TV,” “the flicker of a smile,” “a howling gale.” (You will also encounter one or two wince-worthy grammatical errors, such as “the first criteria.”) These faults do weaken the book’s otherwise powerful effects. Fortunately, because the relatos are arranged mostly in order between 2002 and 2011, during which time the author was obviously working hard at her craft, the style rapidly improves, in Sophie Hughes’s translation, into something natural, careful and smooth, as in the gripping “Life’s Not Worth a Thing.”
Told in the voice of a terrified lawyer who is “invited” to meet a Zeta gang boss, it more than achieves the collection’s professed goal — “to tell a story with the maximum amount of detail and the minimum amount of noise.” In other words, Melchor makes her point (not without sorrow and gruesome humor), then gets out of the way, so that her subjects can speak.
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