Monday, February 10, 2014

Quesadillas, by Juan Pablo Villalobos

In a tiny rural town of Mexico, Orestes, Oreo for short, loves his quesadillas, but knows that every meal is a struggle, trying to get his fair share before his 6 siblings jump ahead of him.  In Quesadillas, Oreo tells his story, and the story of his family, as they struggle to survive in the PRI-dominated political climate, as the dairy farms around them become more industrialized (and an industry captain moves in next door, and as Oreo's siblings run off or are abducted by aliens.

Juan Pablo Villalobos writes Quesadillas so much in the style of a memoir that I have to wonder how much of this is fiction, and how much is based on his own experiences.  Yet there's enough absurdity to convince me that surely much is made up.  And yet. . . . as Oreo says, "Wasnt' everyone always saying we were a surrealist country?"

Quesadillas is a fun read, with a caustic view of late-twentieth-century Mexico.  Villalobos, who, incidentally, now lives in Brazil, clearly has some problems with Mexico, a "lousy country" which was "eternally organized around fraud." Oreo wants his father, a high school civics teacher who constantly grumbles about the government, "to survive and carry on living in this country--that was his punishment."

The political themes are strong, but do not overshadow Oreo's coming of age story.  He becomes friends with the new wealthy neighbor.  When he sees how the neighbors live, he sees his family's poverty in context: "The worst thing wasn't being poor; the worst thing was having no idea of the things you can do when you have money."  Oreo tracks the fortunes of his family, and of his mother's perception of economic trends, by the quantity of cheese in the quesadillas.  When things got really bad, his mother cooked up "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."  He finally does get away from home and spends some time in the city, but came back "because the class struggle had worn me out and I wanted to eat quesadillas for free."

Oreo's adventures delight and entertain, while giving a window into rural Mexican life and culture.  If only my Spanish was good enough to read and enjoy Villalobos in the original.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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