Quesadillas is the second novel by Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos, author of the brilliantly comic Down the Rabbit Hole (nominated for the 2011 Guardian first book award). Where his earlier book gave a first hand account of life inside a Mexican cartel boss’ palatial home, told from the perspective of the kingpin’s son, his latest efforts put flesh on the (meagre) bones of life in rural Mexico during the economically turbulent 1980s.
Orestes is the adolescent narrator of the story, who along with his six brothers and sisters were given ancient Greek names by their school teacher father. The large and poverty-stricken family reside perched on the side of a hill – Cerro de la Chingada – in a small town where “there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows.”
The state of the country’s finances can be measured by the thickness of the tortillas served up each night by Orestes’ mother, in the form of inflationary quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas, or normal quesadillas if they were lucky. In hard times, the family could expect poor man’s quesadillas, where “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.”
Orestes is constantly trying to figure out exactly where his family sits on the socioeconomic ladder – he refuses to believe his mother’s claims that they are in fact part of the elusive Mexican middle-class, while his father is too busy swearing at politicians on TV to provide any adequate explanations.The disappearance of Orestes’ twin brothers Castor and Polluxat at the grocery store one day is seen not so much as a family tragedy as a reprieve at the dinner table, with ten less grabbing fingers to contend with.
Mundane family life is interrupted by the construction of a lavish mansion next door and the size of it leads Orestes’ clan to believe that a family at least as big as their own is moving in. They are surprised when a Polish family of just three finally occupy the house, although Orestes is quick to surmise that is must be impossible to be both a large family and have money.
At times tongue-in-cheek, at times laugh-out-loud funny, Villalobos’ work also contributes to that great literary genre so well developed in Latin America—magical realism. He writes of Mexico, “Weren’t fantastic, wonderful things meant to happen to us all the time? Didn’t we speak to the dead? Wasn’t everyone always saying we were a surrealist country?”
If these claims are true, the book climaxes in true Mexican style with an overwhelmingly absurd sequence of events – the improbable return of lost family members amidst an orgy of cows and the arrival of a spaceship. The reader is ultimately left to wonder at the symbolism employed in this dramatic culmination of events, but perhaps such absurdity is to be expected in a country where those living in abject poverty can be convinced of their middle-class status, and where the humble quesadilla holds the key to sophisticated political analysis.