Quesadillasby Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rosalind Harvey (Translator), Neel Mukherjee (Introduction)
A brilliant new comic novel from "a linguistic virtuoso" (José Antonio Aguado, Diari de Terrassa)
It's the 1980s in Lagos de Morenoa town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cowsand a poor family struggles to overcome the bizarre dangers of living in Mexico. The father, a high-school/b>/b>/b>/i>
A brilliant new comic novel from "a linguistic virtuoso" (José Antonio Aguado, Diari de Terrassa)
It's the 1980s in Lagos de Morenoa town where there are more cows than people, and more priests than cowsand a poor family struggles to overcome the bizarre dangers of living in Mexico. The father, a high-school civics teacher, insists on practicing and teaching the art of the insult, while the mother prepares hundreds of quesadillas to serve to their numerous progeny: Aristotle, Orestes, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor, and Pollux. Confined to their home, the family bears witness to the revolt against the Institutional Revolutionary Party and their umpteenth electoral fraud. This political upheaval is only the beginning of Orestes's adventures and his uproarious crusade against the boredom of rustic life and the tyranny of his older brother.
Both profoundly moving and wildly funny, Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos's Quesadillas is a satiric masterpiece, chock-full of inseminated cows, Polish immigrants, religious pilgrims, alien spacecraft, psychedelic watermelons, and many, many "your mama" insults.
Mexican novelist Villalobos (Down the Rabbit Hole) fuses personal mythologies and political margins in his new novel, a riotous tall tale set in the hills of Cerro de la Chingada and narrated by young Orestes, whose perennial concern, despite his family’s crippling poverty, is wresting his daily share of his mother’s quesadillas from his six brothers and sisters, “all of them highly qualified strategists in the survival tactics of big families.” There’s Aristotle, the eldest; Archilochus; Callimachus; Electra; and the “pretend twins” Castor and Pollux, who go missing after a violent rebellion sweeps the countryside. Convinced that they’ve been kidnapped by aliens, Aristotle draws his brother into a search in which the imaginary merges with the realities of destitute backwater Mexico. Calling it magical realism would be lazy, given the undertone of socially conscious indignation that underlies often-fantastical imagery: a highway procession of pilgrims, “an orgy of hysterical cows,” and the pervasive sense of a Greek epic confined to squalor. With tidy, uncompromised prose, Villalobos has inaugurated a new kind of avant-garde novel, one whose grasp of certain dehumanizing political realities never erodes the power to dream something better. Agent: Andrea Montejo, Indent Literary Agency. (Feb.)
“Villalobos is one tablespoon Eugene Ionesco, desperately but hopefully advocating nihilism; a dash of Harold Pinter, catapulting his characters into oblivion; and a pinch of Suzan Lori-Parks, igniting political allegory with sibling rivalry . . . Pure fantastical rapture.” Julie Morse, The Rumpus
“Quesadillas is fast-paced and colloquial; it is troubling and funny all at once . . . Quesadillas is an unusual and important novel that deserves to be read.” Arthur Dixon, World Literature Today
“Mr. Villalobos's novels are short, dark, comic, ribald and surreal. They aren't so much manic-depressive as they are, to borrow Delmore Schwartz's phrasing, manic-impressive. This writer stares down serious issues--poverty, class, systemic violence--and doesn't analyze them so much as sneeze all over them . . . It's all delicious, and resonant.” Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review
“[A] vibrant, comic novel.” Leigh Newman, Oprah.com
“A wildly funny farce that's also surprisingly moving.” BookPage
“Wonderful . . . This is a rich book--an inflationary quesadilla, overflowing with cheese.” Benjamin Rybeck, Three Guys One Book
“It's a trick to use the f-word three times in a novel's first sentence and still be as charming and disarming as Juan Pablo Villalobos manages to be in the delightful Quesadillas. . . Quesadillas is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.” Nick DiMartino, Shelf Awareness
“If you haven't expanded your horizons by reading literature from around the globe in 2014, Juan Pablo Villalobos, the Mexican-born writer living in Brazil, might be your best place to start.” Jason Diamond, Flavorwire
“Quesadillas . . . does for magic realism what Down the Rabbit Hole did for 'narco-literature' . . . The high-keyed domestic comedy is enjoyable for its own sake, but provides cover for a satirical assault on the mendacity of Mexican politics.” Alfred Hickling, The Guardian
“Riotous . . . Villalobos has inaugurated a new kind of avant-garde novel, one whose grasp of certain dehumanizing political realities never erodes the power to dream something better.” Kirkus (starred review)
The author of the successful Down the Rabbit Hole combines satire, magical realism, and humor in an episodic flashback of growing up in the politically turbulent 1980s.
A political allegory aims for pointed satire but settles for slapstick farce. The author (Down the Rabbit Hole, 2012) writes of a poor family that thinks of itself as middle class, living in a region where "there are more cows 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." All of this figures into the narration of a man remembering his boyhood of 25 years earlier, when he was 13 and the second oldest in a family subsisting totally on quesadillas. The cheap meal provides the titular metaphor for the family's condition and has a wide range of quality and implications: "The normal quesadillas were the ones we would have eaten every day if we lived in a normal country--but if we were living in a normal country we wouldn't have been eating quesadillas and so we also called them impossible quesadillas....Finally you had the poor man's quesadillas, in which the presence of cheese was literary: you opened one up and instead of adding melted cheese my mother had written the word ‘cheese.' " Gentrification arrives, initially with a neighboring family of three from Poland, whose large estate presages the development that will threaten the protagonist's family's ramshackle home with demolition. Most of the names in the family are classic Greek, starting with oldest son Aristotle, of whom the narrator complains, "You can't fight for the truth when your rival's name is Aristotle." An exception is a "stoner uncle" known as Pink Floyd, who causes the narrator to lament, "Pink Floyd, how I wish you were here." For all that it has to say about the relationship between the few rich and the many poor in Mexico, the writing is neither as clever nor as funny as it seems to think it is.
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By Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rosalinda Harvey
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 Juan Pablo Villalobos
All rights reserved.
'Go and fuck your fucking mother, you bastard, fuck off!'
I know this isn't an appropriate way to begin, but the story of me and my family is full of insults. If I'm really going to report everything that happened, I'm going to have to write down a whole load of mother-related insults. I swear there's no other way to do it, because the story unfolded in the place where I was born and grew up, Lagos de Moreno, in Los Altos, Jalisco, a region that, to add insult to injury, is located in Mexico. Allow me to point out a few things about my town, for those of you who have never been there: there are more cows 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.
'Bastards! They're sons of bitches! They must think we're fucking stupid!'
The one shouting was my father, a professional insulter. He practised at all hours, but his most intense session, the one he seemed to have spent the day in training for, took place from nine to ten, dinnertime. And when the news was on. The nightly routine was an explosive mixture: quesadillas on the table and politicians on the TV.
'Fucking robbers! Corrupt bastards!'
Can you believe that my father was a high-school teacher?
With a mouth like that?
With a mouth like that.
My mother was keeping an eye on the state of the nation from behind the griddle pan, flipping tortillas and monitoring my father's anger levels, although she only intervened when she thought he was about to explode, whenever he chose to choke on the stream of dialectical drivel he was witnessing on the news. Only then would she go over and give him a few well-aimed thumps on the back, a move she had perfected through daily practice, until my father spat out a bit of quesadilla and lost that violet colouring he loved to terrify us all with. Nothing but a lousy ineffectual death threat.
'What did I tell you? You need to calm down or you'll do yourself a mischief,' my mother scolded, predicting a life of gastric ulcers and apoplectic fits for him, as if having almost been killed by a lethal combination of processed maize and melted cheese wasn't enough. She then tried to calm us down, exercising a mother's right to contradiction.
'Leave him alone. It helps him let off steam.'
We left him to suffocate and let off steam, because at that moment we were concentrating on fighting a fratricidal battle for the quesadillas, a savage struggle to affirm our own individuality while trying to avoid starving to death. On the table there were a shitload of grabbing hands, sixteen hands, with all their eighty fingers, struggling to pilfer as many tortillas as possible. My adversaries were my six brothers and sisters and my father, all of them highly qualified strategists in the survival tactics of big families.
The battle would grow vicious when my mother announced that the quesadillas were almost finished.
'You've already eaten eighty!'
'That's not true.'
'Shut your mouth!'
'I've only had three.'
'Silence! I can't hear,' interrupted my father, who preferred televised insults to those transmitted live.
My mother switched off the gas, left her post at the griddle pan and handed us each a tortilla. This was her view of equity: ignoring past injustices and sharing out today's available resources equally.
The scene of these daily battles was our house, which was like a shoebox with a lid made from a sheet of asbestos. We had lived there since my parents got married; well, they had – the rest of us arrived gradually, expelled from the maternal womb one after another, one after another and finally, as if that wasn't enough, two at a time. The family grew, but the house did not as a consequence, and so we had to push our mattresses together, pile them up in a corner, share them, so we could all fit in. Despite the years that had passed, the house looked as if it was still being built because so much of it was unfinished. The façade and the outside walls brazenly showed the brick they were made of and which should have remained hidden under a layer of cement and paint, had we respected social conventions. The floor had been prepared ready for ceramic tiles to be laid on top of it, but the procedure had never been completed. Exactly the same thing occurred with the lack of tiles in the places reserved for them in the bathroom and kitchen. It was as if our house enjoyed walking around stark naked, or at least scantily clad. Let's not distract ourselves by going into the dodgy state of the electrics, the gas and the water; suffice it to say there were pipes and cables all over the place, and that some days we had to get water from the tank by means of a bucket tied to a rope.
All this took place over twenty-five years ago, in the 1980s, 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. Back then I thought, among other things, that all the people and the things that appeared on TV had nothing to do with us or our town, that the scenes on the screen were taking place on another plane of reality, an exciting reality that never touched and never would touch our dull existence. Until one night we had a terrifying experience when we sat down to eat our quesadillas: our town was the main item on the news. A silence so complete fell that, apart from the reporter's voice, all you could hear was the rustle of our fingers carrying tortillas to our mouths. Even in our surprise we weren't going to stop eating; if you think eating quesadillas in the midst of widespread astonishment is implausible, it's because you didn't grow up in a big family.
The TV was switching back and forth between two still images while the reporter repeated that the town hall had been occupied by rebels; the main road in the centre was blocked off with piles of rubbish – which the presenter called 'barricades' – and a burning tyre, with its inseparable comrade, an arriviste plume of smoke. Then I looked out of the kitchen window of our house, situated high up on the Cerro de la Chingada, and confirmed what was being said on the news. I could see four or five sinister, black, stinking clouds tarnishing the view of the illuminated parish church. The church deserves a special mention: a pink-stoned piece of shit, visible from anywhere in the town and home to the army of priests who forced us to follow their creed of misery and arrogance.
The news explained the whispered conversations between my parents, the repeated phone calls from my father's colleagues: Professor So-and-so speaking, let me talk to your father. Professor Such-and-such speaking, put your father on. If I'd been paying attention I wouldn't have needed to watch the news to realise what was going on ... if it weren't for the fact I was living through that period of supreme selfishness known as adolescence. Finally my father interrupted the national lynching of our local rebels by gesticulating angrily, scattering little bits of cornmeal pastry into the air.
'What do they expect if they steal the fucking elections? They don't want to lose? So don't organise the damned elections and let's all stop fucking around!'
That very same day, a little later on, a truck with a megaphone drove slowly past our house, loudly exhorting us to perform the incomprehensible civic-minded act of withdrawing from the street and staying shut up in our houses. Until further notice. If the order had been sent as far as the Cerro de la Chingada, where there were barely any houses, and each one was separated from the next by vast spiny expanses of acacia trees, it was because things were really fucked up.
My mother ran into the kitchen and came back with her eyes full of tears and a quiver in her voice.
'Darling,' she announced to my father, and at home this affectionate opening gambit always served as a prologue to catastrophe, 'we only have thirty-seven tortillas and 800 grams of cheese left.'
We entered a phase of quesadilla rationing that led to the political radicalisation 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 – listed in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony. The inflationary quesadillas were thick in order to use up the cheese that my mother had bought in a state of panic at the announcement of a new rise in the price of food and the genuine risk that her supermarket bill would go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were the ones we would have eaten every day if we lived in a normal country – but if we had been living in a normal country we wouldn't have been eating quesadillas and so we also called them impossible quesadillas. Devaluation quesadillas became less substantial for psychological rather than economic reasons – they were the quesadillas of chronic national depression – and were the most common in my parents' house. Finally you had the poor man's quesadillas, in which the presence of cheese was literary: you opened one up and instead of adding melted cheese my mother had written the word 'cheese' on the surface of the tortilla. We were yet to experience the horror of a total absence of quesadillas.
My mother, who had never voiced a political opinion in her life, came down on the government's side and demanded that the rebels be routed and the human right to food be immediately reinstated. My father abandoned his stoicism and retorted that dignity could not be exchanged for three quesadillas.
'Three quesadillas?' my mother countered, despair inciting her to feminist sarcasm. 'It's so obvious you do nothing around here! This family gets through at least fifty quesadillas a day.'
Still more confusingly, my father insisted that the rebels were a bunch of idiots, even though he defended them. It would be ungrateful not to, since it had been they, during one of their sporadic periods in government more than ten years ago, who had brought electricity and phone lines to the hill we lived on.
Basically, all the rebels did was shout 'Long live Christ the king!' and pray for time to go back to the beginning of the twentieth century.
'These poor people want to die and they don't know how. They're trying to die of hunger but it takes ages – that's why they like war so much,' said my father by way of explaining to us that the rebels would not negotiate, would not accept any agreement with the government.
We called them 'the Little Red Rooster's men', in part because their party logo was a red rooster, but mainly because they – like most political parties – were given to referring to themselves by unpronounceable acronyms. As there was no other party with a blue or yellow rooster, which would have created a source of ambiguity demanding the use of the adjective, a lot of the time linguistic economy – that is, laziness – led us to call them simply 'the Little Rooster's men'. They were cooperative farmers, small-scale ranchers and schoolteachers, always accompanied by a loyal circle of devout women of diverse origin. They called themselves synarchists and their mission was to repeat the defeats of their grandfathers and their fathers, who had waged war way back in the 1920s, when the government decided that the things in heaven belonged to heaven and the things on Earth belonged to the government.
Faced with this exciting scene, my siblings and I – semi-rational beings who ranged in age from fifteen (Aristotle, the eldest) to five (the pretend twins), meticulously separated from each other by two-year periods that suggested a disturbing sexual custom of my parents – set to acting out fist fights between the rebels and the government. I headed up the rebels, because Aristotle refused to be anything except the government – the forces of order, as he put it. The government always won in our battles, because Aristotle was already applying his fascist methodology, which combined using excessive force with buying off his opponents. As if that weren't enough, he always had in his army the pretend twins, who didn't bat an eyelid at anything; didn't speak, didn't move, didn't blink. They liked to act as if they were two plants and, generally speaking, it's impossible to force plants to surrender. They were a couple of ferns in their pots: we knew it was enough to reach out a hand and apply the minimum amount of force to hurt them, but we didn't do it, ever, because we had the impression that the ferns wouldn't hurt a fly.
I tried to wade in with my rhetorical skills, but was condemned to failure because no one understood me.
'Fellow countrymen, there is still time to step back from the profound abyss, still time to return to the path of good and leave to our children that most precious inheritance: liberty, their inalienable rights and their well-being. You are still able to bequeath them an honourable name that they will remember proudly, merely by being addicted to revolution and not to tyranny ...' I exhorted my men, until Aristotle grew bored and curtailed my speech by thumping me.
It meant nothing that I'd won poetry contests at school for six consecutive years, improvising oratory pieces and reciting poems: my own, other people's and anonymous ones. Sometimes the anonymous poems were properly anonymous, sometimes they were my own anonymous efforts and sometimes those of my father, who had – by a long stretch – a greater talent for vulgarity than he had for metaphor. The poems' authorship was determined by the level of embarrassment they caused me as I read them.
From our strategic position high up on the Cerro de la Chingada, we could hear random detonations and shootouts, and glimpse new plumes of smoke. From the phone calls my parents made to my uncles and aunts, who lived in the centre like normal people, not right in the middle of the shit, we knew it was pointless to risk leaving the house, since all the shops were shut. According to my father, the families who lived in the centre had regressed to walking on all fours and were crawling around in their houses, eating lying down and sleeping under their beds. Such a display of circus skills served only to avoid the stray bullets, a waste of talent and energy, considering that without exception we were all going to die one day anyway.
Despite the precariousness and the risk of starvation we experienced in those days, they were a relief for my father, who was finally able to justify his hermit-like decision to build our house on the edge of town – but on top of a hill? You've got to be kidding! He went around saying that while people were praying for their lives in the centre, we were safe, nothing was going to happen to us, which led me to consider the possibility that we'd end up being the only survivors, with the subsequent responsibility of having to repopulate the highlands – my imagination was conditioned by the teachings of the Old Testament.
Two days after the conflict began, the nine o'clock news found us in the distressing situation of one poor man's quesadilla per head.
'Just like in Cuba,' my mother kept saying.
'They don't have quesadillas in Cuba,' my father replied.
'Well, that's their loss, the poor things,' my mother concluded, and turned to stare out of the kitchen window, wishing someone would just bomb the damned town hall once and for all.
My mother's wish for genocide was not going to be granted, although it almost was: the newsreader informed us that at that very moment a shitload of anti-riot vans were arriving in Lagos to reinstate democracy. As if by a stupid cosmic connection, at that very moment we heard a distant rumble and rushed over to the living-room window, which provided a better view of the town's events, veiled, it must be said, by a discreet curtain. We drew the curtain back so as to get a good view and were able to witness a ramshackle procession of trucks down below, on the road that came out in the centre.
'That's right! Fuck them up! That'll obviously solve the problem, as if they were rabid dogs – bastards! Sons of bitches!' my father rebuked them, while my mother tugged at his arm to bring him back into the decency of silence, just in case the police had superpowers and managed to overhear him.
We were awake until very late, because the light and sound show was really something. My father finally resigned himself to silence and sadness. His only activity was to ruffle the hair of each of us in turn, but instead of calming us down he upset us, because he was concentrating so hard on being affectionate that it seemed as if the end of the world was approaching.
'What was that?'
'Gunfire,' replied my father, never one to attempt to sweeten reality.
'Are they going to kill them, Daddy?'
Excerpted from Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rosalinda Harvey. Copyright © 2012 Juan Pablo Villalobos. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973, and lives in Brazil, where he writes for various publications and teaches courses in Spanish literature. He has written literary criticism, film criticism, and short stories. Villalobos is the author of Down the Rabbit Hole (FSG, 2012), which has been translated into fifteen languages.
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This is a terrible book
I got the sample and it is very good. It doesn't really say much or set up the rest of the book. This is not for the faint of heart. If you don't catch my drift, there are 7 cuss words in the sample. I like it so far. Also, don't bother reading the intro. Its super boring. Unless you're in to reading boring intros, then go right ahead. Get the sample, you can always delete it and it's free.