Tag Archives: Mexico

Quesadillas (2012) – Juan Pablo VILLALOBOS

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.

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Black Flower (2003) – KIM Young-ha

It’s safe to say that, by far, this was the novel I was most looking forward to reading when the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist was announced. A fan of Kim’s previous novel, Your Republic is Calling You, the idea that he was turning his gaze to an obscure moment in Korean diaspora history made me very, very excited. And it’s because of these expectations that I was a little disappointed in what I found.

In 1904, a ship set sail from Busan. It carried one thousand Koreans, bound for Mexico, where they have been promised a new life, away from the oncoming storm that is the Japanese Empire. But when they arrive, they discover that everything they have been told is a lie. They are there to be indentured labour, unlikely to ever return to their homes. So they must make a new life for themselves in a foreign country, halfway around the globe.

I love research. I love reading books, finding references to other books, creating a web of information and knowledge. I also know that researching is about a million times more fun than writing—you can do all this reading and call it work without anyone blinking an eye. But there is a point where you must put down your books and get writing. I think Kim probably got to this point too late in his writing of this book, leaving it full of interesting facts about the story he is telling, to the detriment of the actual heart of literature. It’s all good and well to take an historical event and turn it into a novel, but you have to remember why you did it in the first place. If you are more concerned with the event than how the event affected the people, then maybe you should think about writing a non-fiction work.

The historical background Kim is writing about is fascinating. Admittedly, I just spent the last year writing about the Korean diaspora in Japan, so I have an interest in Korean diasporic movement. But like the Koreans in Japan, and indeed, like the Japanese in Brazil, a group of about 1000 Koreans were lured to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico with the promise of hard work, then freedom and riches. Of course, as with most mass migrations like this in the early twentieth century, this was a well-executed lie to get cheap Asian labour to parts of the Western world to avoid rising wages for Western workers.

This exploitation of people who don’t know any better is a legitimate and worthy part of twentieth century to explore through fiction. There are so many stories to tell: the family torn apart, the new immigrant worked to the bone, the coming together of people in times of need, the breakdown of social and cultural mores in the face of adversity. Kim touches on all of these, but in passing—he is far more keen to fill our faces with minor details about Mexican history that, while do inform the novel, are out of place in a text of this length. The ratio of character moments to historical detail is weighted far too heavily toward the latter. I don’t say this often, but if he wanted to keep all that detail in there, he would have been much better off doing so as part of a much longer, epic, widescreen work. Too often I found myself skimming over passages about the intricacies of the Mexican Revolution that had nothing to do with any of the main characters.

The blurb of my edition suggests that this will be a love story, between a young man reborn on his trip to Mexico, Kim Ijeong, and the daughter of an aristocratic caught up in the trip, Yi Yeonsu. Their relationship certainly informs much of the novel. Their meeting on the ship is by chance, and foreshadows much of the degradation of social systems that will rapidly take place once the thousand have left Korea. Of course, as with all teenagers left unwatched, their relationship quickly becomes physical.  When they arrive in Mexico, they are taken to different haciendas, farm/estates where Koreans are used as cheap labour. They manage to meet up again, and in one of their secret trysts, conceive a child. But Ijeong is caught up in other events, and he leaves, completely oblivious to the fact that he has just fathered a child.

And the two never meet again. They go their separate ways, living their own lives, caught up in the Mexican Revolution that seems to catch so many Koreans in its wake. Or maybe that’s just Kim putting his characters where he wants them so he can talk more about Mexican history.

Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the novel are the ones where Kim ignores all the history going on and focuses on his characters. The role of religion plays a huge part in the novel, right from before everyone boards the ship, when a priest, Bak Jeonghun, is robbed of his cross, by a thief, Choe Seongil. Though, at this stage in history, not so many Koreans are Christian, they are brought to Mexico, which is. And so tension arises when the Koreans want to practice their own funeral/marriage ceremonies, even though they are what might be viewed as heathen by some Christians. It’s a strand that, actually, could have been brought out even more to highlight the cultural differences between the two groups. Sadly, this was not to be.

I feel like this is the second time I’ve said this in as many months, but if you are looking for a story about the labourer exodus from Asia in the early twentieth century, there really is no better novel than Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. Though Kim reaches for similar heights, trying to tell the story of thousands at once, Black Flower falls short of his target. Too caught up in the macro, he forgets that the best literature focuses on the macro, the personal stories that act as a mirror for history.

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The Skating Rink (1993) – Roberto BOLAÑO

I’m still working my way through Bolaño’s backlist, so that when I do get around to reading 2666, I will be well and truly prepared. The Skating Rink is his first published novel, and shows his first step away from the poetry he so loved, to the prose fiction he wrote to support his family. As such, it doesn’t hit the highs that his later works, such as The Savage Detectives does, but it is still a novel that stands up on its own two feet.

Three men in a small town in Spain are caught up in a crime not even they could imagine. Remo Morán is a successful businessman; Gaspar Heredia a nighwatchman in one of Morán’s trailer park; and Enric Rosquelles, a rather corrupt official of the town council. Taking it in turns to narrate the events leading up to the horrific crime, each man gives us his own version of events. And you’ll never guess who done it…

I’ve tagged this as a crime novel, but the only reason is that a murder that does take place. Really, it is the story of three men in love with two women, matches that are desperately unsuitable, and will make the men do stupid things. The eponymous skating rink, for example, is built by Rosquelles for Nuria Martí, the girl skating prodigy, screwed over by regional politics, and forced to leave the national skating team. He falls in love with her, and builds a skating rink in an abandoned castle on the outskirts of town, using council money for the construction.

For a woman who plays a fairly large role in the proceedings, Nuria is surprisingly ciper-like in her appearances. She barely speaks, and spends most of her time silently skating on the rink which has been built especially for her. Perhaps, though, this is what Bolaño was trying to achieve, for in the end, this is not a book about Nuria, despite her rather unfortunate end. I kind of like Rosquelles, even though he’s clearly corrupt, and clearly not a particularly nice man. It’s a great image – building a skating rink in the middle of an abandoned castle for a girl you love, even if the gesture is fairly misguided, and ultimately fatal.

Gaspar Heredia is perhaps the most easily recognisable character to those people who already have some familiarity with Bolaño’s other work. He is a poet from Mexico, and is eking a living out of doing rubbish jobs, and chasing girls around the trailer park, which is populated by a whole load of strange and wonderful personalities. Problematically, though, his narrative strand takes, for a long time, a backseat to the main action, and every time his point of view comes around, you are left wondering what on earth he has to do with the main event. His interactions with a homeless opera singer, and a mysterious woman who has a rather unfortunate tendency to wield knives in public places, are interesting, though ultimately confusing. It is not until the closing pages that everything comes together, and you are left wondering if the whole thing couldn’t have been a little tighter, and more controlled.

Arguably the biggest problem, though, with The Skating Rink is the fact that all three characters have voices that sound very, very similar. I understand that creating three distinct voices in a novel can be difficult, and Bolaño did it to perfection in The Savage Detectives, but here, it doesn’t quite work. They all seem disillusioned, sad, and desperately in love with a woman that they shouldn’t be.

This is not, perhaps, the most positive review of this novel you’re likely to find as you trawl the internet. It is clear that this is Bolaño’s first attempt at proper prose fiction, and there are a lot of flaws. I’m not sure it has a lot of appeal to anyone who isn’t a hardcore Bolaño fan, and if you’re looking for a starting point into his work, I rather think The Savage Detectives is far more interesting, and a far greater indication of his genius.

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The Savage Detectives (1998) – Roberto BOLAÑO

The hype surrounding the name of Roberto Bolaño has been massive over the last year or so. His major works, 2666 and The Savage Detectives, have received the most coverage, so why not start with them, right? And since you could build houses with 2666, I figured I’d start with the (slightly) smaller of the two.

In Mexico in 1975, a group of experimental poets, the visceral realists, are making headways in publishing their new, revolutionary poetry.  A young man is caught up in the excitement of the newness of poetry, and is drawn into the adventures of these poets, led by two enigmatic men – Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano.

I don’t think that brief little blurb does this giant novel any justice, because there is so much more going on here. There are three sections: the first and last are told, diary-style, by the young poet caught up in the excitement of the visceral realists. Straight out of school and into university, he meets up with a group of poets raging against the magical realist movement of South American literature worldwide, determined to come up with something different, something unique. What it is exactly that makes this group unique is never explicitly dealt with – instead, the lives of these people takes precedence. In this first section, Bolaño shows us his true genius – characters that are confusing, contradictory, but above all else, normal. They are real people with real concerns. Much of Bolaño’s work deals with his own experiences, and the visceral realist movement is no different – his own work in hyperrealism is here mirrored, and the fractured nature of the visceral realist group perhaps allows him to take out som of his own frustrations with his real-life literary movement.

The middle section (taking up most of the pages), however, is a history of the activities of Lima and Belano between 1975 and 1995. Yet, this history is not told by these characters, or even one omniscient narrator. Instead, we get snippets and short stories from people they have encountered around the world in their travels. This makes pinning down anything definite about these two men very difficult, but also very rewarding. For they are the savage detectives of the title – in a quest to find a young female poet, they do things that are often only hinted at, but also are occasionally explained in graphic detail. From the pieces one can piece together, it seems that Lima is the more adventurous of the two, more willing to go that extra mile – at one stage, he ends up in an Israeli prison. And while each of these narrators is a separate entity, they have similar narrating styles and observations, helping to create something more of a solid image of these two runaway poets. Some of these narrators only give us a few paragraphs; others whole chapters. Some even last the entire novel – the first narrator, Amadeo Salvatierra, has a story that has to be told over several nights, with several bottles of liquor.

There are two main themes here, too: Arturo Belano; and literature. The first, Arturo Belano, is the pseudonym for Bolaño himself, allowing him to fictionalise his own experiences, as I’ve mentioned above. But as a person, how do we see Belano/Bolaño? He is difficult to peg down, but in comparison to Lima, he seems a far nicer, if somewhat more awkward, person. He is more content to go with the flow, and chill out. But hey, I could be completely wrong.

And what do we get of literature? Bolaño is definitely an author concerned with writing, with reading, with reacting to other texts. There are gratuitous references to authors – both real and imagined – and unless you have a very deep background in South American literature, you won’t get most of them. I certainly didn’t. But, then, he mentions Stephen King, too, so that’s nice to see. It’s hard to describe just how important literature is in this novel – it’s woven into the very fabric of what’s going on all the time, if that doesn’t sound too wanky. Arguably, the main plot is Lima and Belano trying to find a lost poet – Cesárea Tinajero – so right from here, it is clear that the written word is important. But each and every character’s obsession with books – writing in particular – is so very ingrained. If someone’s feeling a little sad, they’ll write a short poem. If they’re happy, the same thing. Again and again, we encountered people obsessed with literature, some unhealthily so, as one of them has the self-reflexive nerve to point out.

Look, I’m pretty sure I didn’t understand most of what this novel is trying to say. It definitely needs to be read probably two or three times before you can begin to understand what Bolaño is trying to say. If I reread this novel in five years, I’ll probably look back at these thoughts and hit my past self over the head. But to begin to try and understand, or at least think about, what Bolaño is trying to say is worth it. This truly is a masterwork – the hype is real for a reason.


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