Last July I finally read Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole, the story of a young boy’s privileged but isolated upbringing, his wealth and loneliness the result of his father’s senior position in the Mexican underworld. It quickly became one of my favourite books of the year, and it didn’t take me long to acquire a copy of Villalobos’ second novel to be translated by Rosalind Harvey, Quesadillas – though a little longer (okay, a year) to read it. Quesadillas also has a child narrator – or, at least a teenage one – Orestes (all his siblings also have Greek names) or Oreo. The novel is both a coming-of-age story, in which Oreo seeks to discover his place in the world, and a historical novel, as Villalobos recreates the Mexico of the 1980s from the ground up. Above all, though, it is a meditation on poverty.
The novel may be political satire, but it is political satire of the homelier sort, reflections on the state of the economy being measured in the quesadillas of the title:
“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.”
Oreo’s father is the political commentator of the family, but this mostly consists in throwing insults at the television. Oreo’s own political awakening occurs when he discovers he is poor. When his twin brothers go missing on a shopping expedition, this realisation overwhelms his ability to either worry or look for them:
“The only thing the search achieved was to prove to me that we were poor, really poor, because in the shop were a shitload of things we’d never bought.”
Later his mother insists they are middle class, “as if one’s socio-economic status were a mental state.” (The Greek names now look like a desperate attempt to establish that middle class identity). As Oreo is coming to realise, class has practical implications, emphasised by the arrival of wealthier neighbours. When offered Maria cookies, their son asks, “Don’t you have any Oreos?” only to receive an angry glance from his mother:
“’Hush, they’re poor,’ her whispered stare seemed to shout.”
Oreo’s brother, Aristotle, insists that the twins were kidnapped by aliens and persuades him to accompany him to a well-known extra-terrestrial hot-spot to search for them (after they have stolen provisions from their neighbours first). On the way they join a pilgrimage, but even the sight of the poorer people around them doesn’t comfort Oreo:
“…the poverty of the pilgrims all around us didn’t modify our own. At the most it left us classified as the least poor of this group of poor people, which merely proved that one could always be poorer and poorer still: being poor was a bottomless well.”
It’s on this journey that Oreo decides not to return home, surviving all the world throws at him until he meets a politician:
“I ran as if I were a stray dog fleeing from the blandishments of the town dog-catcher.”
The second half of the novel retains the same comic tone, but we begin to see the more damaging effects of poverty and, in particular, the powerlessness which results. The neighbours arrange for Oreo to spend a night in the cells to teach him a lesson, and then insist he works for the father (who inseminates cows – perhaps a metaphor for what he will do to Oreo’s family). From a middle-class perspective it may seem that Oreo is being ‘helped’, but he has lost control of his own destiny, and meanwhile his (not entirely legal) home is in danger, and not even his father’s indignation can save it.
Quesadillas is another wonderful novel from Villalobos, honest and angry about the poverty of its narrator, but as far from a misery memoir as you could imagine. Often laugh-out-loud funny, we never feel we are laughing at Oreo but laughing with him, all the way to the novel’s uproarious ending.