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Authors: Neel Mukherjee Rosalind Harvey Juan Pablo Villalobos

Tags: #contemporary fiction, #literary fiction, #novel, #translation, #translated fiction, #satire, #comedy, #rite of passage, #Mexico, #pilgrims, #electoral fraud, #elections, #family, #novella, #brothers, #twins, #Guardian First Book Award, #Mexican food, #quesadillas, #tortillas, #politicians, #Greek names, #bovine insemination, #Polish immigrants, #middle class, #corruption, #Mexican politics, #Synarchists, #PRI, #Spanish, #PEN Translates!, #PEN Promotes!, #watermelons, #acacias, #Jalisco, #Lagos, #Orestes, #Winner English Pen Award, #Pink Floyd, #Aristotle, #Archilocus, #Callimachus, #Electra, #Castor, #Pollux

Quesadillas

BOOK: Quesadillas
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First published in 2013 by And Other Stories

www.andotherstories.org
London

New York

Copyright © Juan Pablo Villalobos 2012
Copyright © Editorial Anagrama, S. A, 2010 Pedró de la Creu, 58 08034 Barcelona
English language translation copyright © Rosalind Harvey 2013
Introduction copyright © Neel Mukherjee 2013

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transported in any form by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher of this book.

The right of Juan Pablo Villalobos to be identified as Author of
Quesadillas
(original title
Si viviéramos en un lugar normal
) has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

ISBN 9781908276223
eBook ISBN 9781908276230

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

This book has been selected to receive financial assistance from English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme supported by Bloomberg and Arts Council England. English PEN exists to promote literature and its understanding, uphold writers’ freedoms around the world, campaign against the persecution and imprisonment of writers for stating their views, and promote the friendly co-operation of writers and free exchange of ideas. www.englishpen.org


For Ana Sofía



Introduction

To honour a novel that opens with the words ‘“Go and fuck your fucking mother, you bastard, fuck off!’”, we might begin with Theodor Adorno’s declaration, ‘It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.’ That ‘not to be at home’ has been, and will continue to be, parsed in several ways. On the evidence of both his novels, first
Down the Rabbit Hole
and now
Quesadillas
, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ response can be summed up as
fury
. In his first book he imposed on himself the technical constraint of a child narrator to contain the fury, letting it be palpable only as the shadow cast by a story about the gap between innocence and knowledge. In
Quesadillas
the narrator has grown up

Orestes is thirty-eight, although the book is narrated from the perspective of his thirteen-year-old self

and the more stringent of the circumscriptions dictated by form have been thrown off. What results is euphorically riotous but with a euphoria that comes from letting rip, from going on the rampage, a euphoria of destruction and rage. The target? Mexico;
home.

Admittedly, Villalobos no longer lives in Mexico, but one definition of home is the point from where you begin; we’ll return to this at the end.
Quesadillas
is set mostly in Lagos de Moreno, in Los Altos, Jalisco, ‘a region that, to add insult to injury, is located in Mexico’. Orestes, the protagonist and one of seven children (all of whom are named by their schoolteacher father after characters in classical Greek literature), is a compact, incandescent bundle of one desire only: the desire to escape. To escape his family and the regular attrition of eighty fingers fighting for the limited number of quesadillas cooked by his mother every day. To escape Aristotle, his older brother and main antagonist. To escape, above all, the backwaters of Jalisco, and the basket case that is contemporary Mexico. Not for nothing is his house situated on a fictional hill called the Cerro de la Chingada: the metaphorical heft of this name is something like the ‘Armpit

or Arse-end

of the Universe’. And the novel closes with the approach of the 1988 election, which is going to bring Carlos Salinas of the PRI to power by recourse to massive corruption

yet another illustration, if one were needed, that Mexico is ‘a country eternally organised around fraud’.

But escape of any kind seems doomed in this deliberately aborted novel of exile-that-never-happens (a pre-exile novel, if you will). Instead, Villalobos decides to have some very dark fun with the impossibility of escape and the attendant themes of return, homecoming and the conditions

mostly socio-economic and, by extension, political

that make escape such a matter of urgency for Orestes. He is electrically alive to the stultifying and demeaning nature of his family’s poverty and much of his mental space is given over to calibrating on which side of the hair’s-breadth division between the poor and the middle class they
fall.

A large part of the book’s furious comic energy lies in the voice Villalobos gives Orestes

hyperbolic, eloquent, swaggering, smart, shoot-from-the-hip, scathing, even posturingly ‘cool’. Despair wears such a terrifically entertaining face. But this surface can barely mask the churn of subversion underneath, as Villalobos tears up the social realism handbook page by page. The youngest members of the family, the twins Castor and Pollux (of course), disappear in a supermarket, but the novel hardly bothers to linger on the possible explanations, or the consequent anxiety and grief. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much of either; only, instead, Orestes’ relief that there will now be fewer fingers scrabbling after quesadillas.

The story progresses from absurdity to absurdity, in keeping with the political narrative of the country. The principle of amoral capitalism arrives in the guise of a wealthy Pole, Jaroslaw, who builds a huge house on the hillside and moves in with his wife and son. A petty crime is committed, after which Aristotle and Orestes escape to go to Mesa Redonda hill, from the flat top of which, the older brother has convinced the younger, aliens have abducted the twins.

From this point, the plot becomes gleefully anarchic and increasingly absurdist in its destruction of realist moorings. Aristotle disappears. There is an arrest. An uproarious episode with Orestes as Jaroslaw’s apprentice follows and the finale really goes hell for leather, a veritable eruption of controlled madness. Fantasy? Magic? Magical realism (dread words to anglophone ears)? Perhaps this book will deliver a much-needed jolt to the anglosphere cocooned in its realism-induced narcolepsy. The novel’s Spanish title,
Si viviéramos en un lugar normal
(‘If we lived somewhere normal’), carries multiple nuances, not least of which is the metaphorical resonance it brings to the denouement.

That title also returns us to an atypical passage earlier in the book; atypical because we hear the thirty-eight-year-old for a rare instant: ‘In the end, for whatever reason, one always comes home, or one never really leaves, and everything ends up being about settling old scores with memory, or, rather, with language.’ That inevitability has become the moral imperative of criticising home. The novel in your hands is two hundred odd pages of anger modulated into edgy comedy; howl masquerading as laughter. Listen to
it.

Neel Mukherjee
London, March 2013


Quesadillas

Professional Insulters

‘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.

‘My turn!’

‘It’s mine!’

‘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 due to 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 over 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.

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