I have a great deal of respect for indie publishers And Other Stories. I admire their philosophy towards the promotion and translation of world literature. Most of the time, though, their personal tastes and mine are at odds. I can now say, though, with great pleasure, that I have read an AOS book that I enjoyed immensely.
The second in a loose trilogy of Mexican ‘state of the nation’ novels, Quesadillas follows thei childhood of a young boy growing up in the slums on the outskirts of a big city. His life changes forever, though, when two things happen: a rich family buy the plot of land next door, and his younger twin siblings go missing in a supermarket riot.
There’s a lot to love here. What strikes one first upon entering is the clarity of voice Villalobos (and Rosalind Harvey, the translator) has created. The sardonic, sarcastic of a man looking back on his vaguely ridiculous childhood is perfectly capture in Orestes’ narration of several key episodes, from the first time the family meet their new rich Polish neighbours, to his own experiences artificially inseminating cows.
The situations in which Orestes finds himself are regularly ridiculous. The scene in which his younger siblings go missing is chaotic and rushed, and there is a sense of the uncontrollable when Villalobos turns his eye to the poor Mexican masses trying to deal with their daily lives. It sets off Orestes and his older brother, Aristotle, on a wild goose chase involving aliens, UFOs and crazy cults that eventually sees the disappearance of another two siblings.
At the heart of the comedy and insanity that shoots through the novel is the quite serious discussion Villalobos wants us to have about class and social mobility in contemporary Mexico, particularly about slum gentrification.
The titular foodstuff is, of course, a rather long extended metaphor for the economic state of the family. It’s a small thing, but it’s a reminder that, unlike so many novels grappling with the past, Villalobos is more concerned with looking at history from the bottom up. Though politicians are present (one particularly memorable scene sees our narrator meet a politician and have perhaps the most bizarre conversation in the entire work), for the most part, they remain external to the action. This is a story where the economic and political circumstances of the time are the background to the story of real people who are directly and indirectly affected by these macro changes.
Orestes’ family is desperately concerned with keeping up appearances, particularly with the arrival of the middle-class neighbours who build a house next door. Though there are only three in the family, their house is more massive than our narrator’s. Desperate to not look poor, Orestes’ family insist that they are middle-class, despite clear evidence to the contrary.
As everything around Orestes slowly unravels, the ending hurtles towards the insane. Somehow, though, Villalobos makes it work. There are hints of absurdism through most of the novel, but for the most part, they remain nothing more than hints. This quickly goes out the window in the final sequence, in which all hell breaks loose, and any attempts to classify this as social realism masquerading as satire go with it.
Quesadillas marks Juan Pablo Villalobos out as a talent to watch. I’ve not read his first novel, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for it. And if And Other Stories knows what’s good for them, they’ll keep him on their books as he hopefully grows into an important voice coming out of Central America.