Book Review - Quesadillas

In his acclaimed debut novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos explored the lawlessness and violence of Mexico as seen through the eyes of the young son of a drug baron. In Quesadillas, his second novel to be published by And Other Stories, Villalobos travels back in time to the 1980s and once again uses a child’s perspective to describe the corruption and economic volatility of his native country.

Thirteen-year-old Orestes lives on the Cerro de la Chingado – which Rosalind Harvey translates as “the hill in the middle of (fucking) nowhere” – in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The local town has “more cars than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and the people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints and so forth.”

From a large family and always hungry, Orestes measures poverty in quesadillas (savoury tortillas) and divides them into categories depending on the thickness of the filling – inflationary, normal, devaluation and poor man’s. Orestes and his six siblings have been named after historical figures from classical Greece by their high-school teacher father. As well as pondering their varying degrees of poverty and the merits of being considered middle-class, Orestes’ particular talent is poetry – reciting and writing – although he finds little opportunity for this to be taken seriously.

The town hall is occupied by rebels and during the unrest Orestes loses his younger twin brothers in the state-owned supermarket. Then a wealthy Polish family move into a palatial house next door. They are intent on developing the surrounding land which threatens Orestes’ family’s home. Meanwhile, his brother Aristotle is convinced that the twins have been abducted by aliens and persuades Orestes to join him on a mini-odyssey to find them.

Villalobos manages to pack in various political references. The twins’ apparent abduction and the ineffectuality of the police investigation recall the disappearances that occur with impunity in Mexico today. When the family’s tragedy is reported on television, it is treated like a telenovela (a melodramatic soap opera), with “a brief digression into Graeco-Roman mythology” before the presenter returns “to other news without a solution, such as the national economy.”

Quesadillas is gloriously absurd, celebrates the fantastical, and plays with notions of magic realism. But it is Villalobos’ quirky, laconic style that most impresses. The twins’ general inertia causes Orestes to liken them to “a couple of ferns in their pots”. After a petty crime, Orestes is forced to help his Polish neighbour who inseminates cows for a living, an experience he describes as “bovine eroticism”. It is this delight in language that marks out Villalobos as a writer of distinction.

A shorter version first appeared in The Independent