Book Review

Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Photo on 06-08-2014 at 19.13 #4

This is a very short novel (that, somehow, feels even shorter than it is) published by the commendable independent publishing house, And Other Stories. I bought this, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ second novel, from the closing down sale at Blackwell’s on Charing Cross Road* a few weeks ago, after going there specifically to find the author’s first (and even shorter) novel, Down The Rabbit Hole.** Finding it gone (or never there) I decided to plump for Quesadillas (its Spanish title, Si viviéramos en un lugar normal, translating as the very different “If we lived in a normal place”).

Quesadillas is about Orestes, a teenage boy from a big family in a small Mexican city. Two of his younger siblings (Castor and Pollox) disappear (possibly kidnapped by aliens), so he and his eldest brother (Aristotle) decide to run away. They fight over food rations and separate, then Orestes develops a semi-magical con trick to earn quesadillas and goes back home after a politician, so impressed by his fraud skills, tries to employee him. Orestes arrives home and soon the shack his family lives in is threatened with eviction due to their area’s gentrification. And here, I suppose, the novel (novella)’s real thrust begins to be clearer.

I suppose, really, I don’t know enough about recent Mexican political history to understand a lot of the background to this book, and I think (really) this is to my  disadvantage. Though it is funny, there are some great set pieces and some clear and universal satire that I absolutely understood, there were definitely some other bits that I found a little… rudderless with my lack of knowledge of the references.

But, also, as it is a self-consciously political novel (the “glossary” at the end confirms this) I feel that it almost touches on a few too many things a little too briefly. I think this is a novel that has ideas too big for its 170 pages of large and almost double-spaced print.

Which is, I suppose, why I found Quesadillas disappointing. Generally, I prefer short novels to long novels***, but this is a short novel that I felt, really, should have been a long novel. It felt truncated (or possibly dismembered) rather than terse. I don’t know if this is an issue with the translation, which I did feel had a recurring error within it through its use of “arsehole” rather than “asshole”. As a British English speaker, it may seem odd that I’m encouraging this Americanism, but the way Rosalind Harvey uses “arsehole” is dialogue is unrealistic. What I found more troubling (as I’ve never before noticed such a clear error of translation) is the fact that Harvey won an award for this . I can only, only, take from this that English PEN are so pro-Britain and conservative that seeing a misused Britishism (where an Americanism would be CORRECT in contemporary English) sets them all aquiver. Worth remembering once I’ve got my Spanish up to book-translating level…

But, I suppose, my problem with Quesadillas is that I had hoped to love it, I had hoped to be blown away, I had hoped to find something special. If I knew more about recent Mexican politics, maybe I’d have got more than I did here. Maybe it was a case of an excess of expectations. For me, Quesadillas was a good (but not great) novel about being young and pensive in Mexico 20/30 years ago.

Though, maybe, I’m just too old to enjoy books about being young now.



* I know, I know, Blackwell’s give money to UKIP, one shouldn’t shop there. But a) I won’t again and b) I feel that taking advantage of a massive closing down sale is kicking the right wing bastards when they’re down, rather than pissing on them when they’re on fire. Yes?

On a similar right wing and bookshops note, has anyone else ever seen the photograph of David Cameron in Skoob Books? It really shat me up, in the way that finding a photograph of my toddler self being coddled by  Jimmy Saville might do. A sacred place made profane.

** Which I both do and do not want to read just because Adam Thirlwell wrote its introduction and I’m only one novel away from reading his entire oeuvre.

*** See my ever recurring comparisons between Mrs Dalloway (fucking excellent) and Ulysses (a bloated, egotistical mess containing passages of incredible beauty drowned into irrelevance). Infinite Jest, though, is the obvious anti-example.

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