Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Quesadillas: A Novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos is both amusing and depressing. The narrator, Orestes, is a boy; he's poor, teased or bullied by his classmates and older brother Aristotle, always at least somewhat hungry, and desperate to understand the political and social world that has deprived him of something -- he doesn't quite know what that is. His family lives in a shack next to a mansion, with the predictable relationship between him and the neighbor's son. His father, a teacher, expresses him self in various ways, including the Classical Greek names of his children.

Orestes' father speaks harshly and crudely to the 7 children in the family -- when the two youngest children, Castor and Pollux, disappear, they aren't quite missed. His mother constantly cries and makes quesadillas from her never-quite-adequate supplies of cheap tortillas and cheese: except when she doesn't have any cheese so she just writes the word "cheese" on a tortilla. Maybe she misses the disappeared children. It's hard to tell.

The real heroes of the story seem to be the quesadillas that the family eats every day. Quesadillas come in several types: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas, and poor-man's quesadillas. And each type has its own political definition. When  mother panic-buys cheese because of inflationary price rises, they have inflationary quesadillas with lots of cheese. 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." Poor-man's tacos are the ones that have only the word "cheese" not the actual thing. And so on.

Quesadilla ingredients come from the state-subsidized store, another way the government plays a role in his consciousness. On one occasion during a political demonstration the store runs out of food, to his mother's desperation. Later, when he is offered a whole menu of dishes in a restaurant, the boy still chooses quesadillas over "gorditas and huaraches, tamales and tacos de canasta."

Orestes and Aristotle run away from home, fight, and are separated. Slowly the tale turns from a hardscrabble account of living in a tiny Mexican town in poverty to a surreal account of not-quite-believable adventures. I would say the book starts in one genre and morphs into another, but this doesn't make it hard to read, I think it makes it strong.

Thinking of the book, I made quesadillas.
I'm sure they mean something entirely different to us than to Orestes and his family --
if in fact mine are anything like the quesadillas they ate.


Jeanie said...

I love the character names. The book sounds pretty interesting -- and your own quesadilas -- my fave Mexican dish -- look great!

Cakelaw said...

Sounds like an interesting story - and anything food related has my attention.