Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novella Quesadillas* is set in the Mexican backwater of Lado De Moreno, in a house on a hill called Cerro de la Chingada (which roughly translates into “the armpit”) and tells the adventures of a boy named Orestes. “Oreo” for short. This follow-up to last years’ Down the Rabbit Hole is about many things: adolescent angst, class economics and the impact of gentrification on a family. And you can’t leave out: alien abduction, sibling rivalry and grass-roots revolution… which should just about cover the first 2 chapters.
Orestes is the second of seven children (reduced to five in the first few pages when the fake-twins Castor & Pollux go missing). All – Aristotle, Orestes, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor and Pollux – are named for classical Greeks. Despite their father being a high school teacher the family lives in abject poverty, surviving on a diet of quesadillas. A good portion of the narrative is spent describing the varieties of quesadilla Orestes’ mother cooks. Changes to her recipe directly correspond to changes in the Mexican economy.
We entered a phase of quesadilla rationing that led to the political radicalization of every member of my family. We were all well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listen in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.
Like Tochtli, the hero of Down the Rabbit Hole, Orestes is unhappy with his family’s circumstances and trapped in a world of his parents making. But there the similarities end. Orestes and his problems in no way resemble those of a Mexican drug lord’s son. He is speaking to us from 25 years in the future about his 1980’s adolescent self; describing “the period when I passed from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to youth, blithely conditioned by what some people call a provincial world-view, or a local philosophical system.” This system collapses when a wealthy family moves next door and his own family’s poverty becomes glaringly apparent.
‘Father, forgive me for being poor.’
‘Being poor is not a sin, my child.’
‘But I don’t want to be poor, so I’ll probably end up stealing things or killing someone to stop being poor.’
‘One must be dignified in poverty, my child. One must learn to live in poverty with dignity. Jesus Christ our Lord was poor.’
‘Oh, and are you priests poor?’
‘Times have changed.’
‘So you’re not?’
‘We don’t concern ourselves with material questions. We take care of the spirit. Money doesn’t interest us.’
My father said the same thing when, in order to prove my mother was lying, I asked him if we were poor or middle class. He said that money didn’t matter, that what mattered was dignity. That confirmed it: we were poor.
This scene takes place after the disappearance of the fake twins. Oreo goes on to consider the relative merits (more quesadillas!) of getting rid of a few more siblings.
Irreverent, profane and strangely touching – Villalobos and his translator Rosalind Harvey have captured the sarcastic and rebellious voice of adolescence. Just as they did a 7-year old’s innocence while describing a world he didn’t fully understand. Oreo’s take on the world is ridiculously funny. At its best Quesadillas is George Carlin-brand comedy; laced with anger and frustration and politics and sheer astonishment at the absurdity of human foible. As the novella progresses the situations increase in absurdity to the point of incredulity. And yet Villalobos always provides a possible, if unlikely, explanation. Regardless, most readers will happily suspend their disbelief for the brief period of time it takes to breeze through this book. That’s the beauty of the novella: longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. An author has the time to throw out a few curve balls, be a little crazy and break some rules.
All without running the risk of losing his audience.
Publisher: FSG Originals, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 374 53395 3
*FSG Originals published the U.S. edition of Quesadillas. The imprint has positioned itself as Farrar Strauss & Giroux’s “edgy” paperback division – meant to target the publisher’s “well-educated, pop-culture-obsessed, young-ish urban readership” whose needs, one assumes, were not being met by the house’s current catalog and who were more likely to seek out the non-traditional offerings of smaller, independent publishers. There are a few facts that I find interesting about this. First that the FSG Originals catalog is a carefully curated (or life-styled, as they say in the fashion world) mix of titles – some of which in their original incarnations were websites, apps, and other non-traditional/non-book storytelling mediums; in 2013 FSG Originals introduced a Digital Originals program; the aggressive targeting of a specific demographic of consumer; and that both the Villalobos titles were originally released by & Other Stories – the UK indie publisher (with a U.S. office) that’s been making a name for itself with a roster of unusual and innovative authors like Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rodrigo de Souza Leao & Deborah Levy.