Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey & with an introduction by Neel Mukherjee)

1.

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.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘No.’

‘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.

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan

My story really begins in Charleston, a perfect haunt of light and invention that stands in the English countryside.  It was warm that summer and the mornings went far into the afternoon, when the best of the garden would come into the house, the flowers arranged in pots and given new life by Vanessa in her fertile hours.  She was always there with her oils and her eyes, the light falling through the glass ceiling to inflame the possibility of something new.  She had good days and bad days.  One good days she set out her brushes and knew the time was right for work when all her memories became like an aspect of sleep.

It was June 1960…

The narrator of that wonderfully written opening, and the novel that follows it, is a dog.  A small, white Maltese, to be exact.  Who shares more in common with a hero from Dickens than he does with Lassie.  Maf, allegedly short for Mafia Honey, began life in the home of Vanessa Bell – sister of Virginia Woolf and a core member of Bloomsbury.  He was purchased by Natalie Wood’s mother, who then sold him to Frank Sinatra, who presented him as a gift to Marilyn Monroe on the eve of her divorce from Arthur Miller.  If this book is to be believed, Maf’s version of the game Six Degrees of Separation would put Kevin Bacon to shame.

From the beginning Maf travels in the best circles – in both the human and animal worlds.  According to Andrew O’Hagan dogs, animals in general really, are a very literary bunch.  Cats “prefer poetry over prose”.  Flies, rats and squirrels hurry about their business pretty much as usual, except with NY accents (at least when they live in NY).   It’s fanciful, but it plays just close enough to what most of us want to believe as to avoid feeling cutesy.  At one point Maf tells his reader, “That’s what humans do.  They talk to you.  They talk nonsense.  They talk to you and they talk for you.  And so they create a personality for you which is defined by the way they act you out.  Every minute they are with you they are constructing you out of what they want, a companion, a little man, a furry friend…”  And he’s right.

And so Maf is believable as Marilyn’s protector, her confidant, her erstwhile child, her therapist. He can form opinions on her, her friends, her employees, fans, psychotherapists and teachers.  At the same time, he can lecture us on the novelist Henry Fielding, Emma Bovary’s dog, the real feelings of the police dogs at Civil Rights marches (their sympathies, we are told, were firmly with the marchers).  He’s wickedly funny.  We, the readers, accept it all.   That is key – O’Hagan had to get that right, or the book doesn’t hold together.  Maf had to be convincingly anthropomorphized – expressing human opinions without losing his sense of doggie-ness.  In one of my favorite scenes, at a cocktail party Maf attends with Marilyn, Lillian Hellman states ‘I’m sorry to say Comrade Trotsky is a traitor.  I was glad I opposed his application for American Asylum.’  The Maltese (a diehard Trotskyite) launches himself from under a nearby table and sinks his teeth “into her nylon-clad ankle” to the appreciation of the other guests.

The Life & Opinions of Maf the Dog is jam-packed with celebrity cameos.  The usual suspects make appearances – Frank Sinatra, John F. Kennedy, Natalie Wood, Leo Castelli and Lee Strasburg.  More interesting to me was the friendship between Monroe and the author Carson McCullers.  (But that could just be where my interests lie – with the New York literati Monroe met through Miller rather than the Hollywood glitterati she seemed to want badly to escape).  I don’t have a whole lot to say about the cameos other than that they are entertaining.  O’Hagan didn’t particularly dazzle me with new insights into the complex personalities and egos at play.

This is, ultimately, a book for serious lit lovers.  Accounts of Frank Sinatra’s tantrums or the Kennedy “affair” take a backseat to Maf’s segues on the great dogs of history and literature – complete with footnotes.  The narrative tends to ramble, in the way of a stodgy 19th century novel.  It’s all in good fun, but it rambles nonetheless. The storytelling is unapologetically British (despite the author being Scottish) and there was a point halfway through where I found myself wondering if an American author could have written this kind of book, about these people, so engagingly.  In the end, I doubt it.  It needed the distance of another species and at least one ocean to make it work.

Andrew O’Hagan brings a unique perspective to material that’s been pawed over by way too many people.  He has written true affection into the relationship between Maf and his owner.  As usual the character of Marilyn remains glamorously elusive, even to her best friend – and that’s probably for the best (let’s face it, no one wants to watch a legend clip her toenails).  The Life & Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe is far from being a perfect novel… or a perfect working title.  But  O’Hagan has captured a bit of magic here.  There’s something remarkably touching about this story of a girl, fading into depression, and her dog, forced to witness it.   Maf tells it with an artless candor that pulls this book out of the Hollywood gutter, past tawdry speculations and makes it special.  And, thank goodness, a lot of fun.

Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 15 101372 2

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