Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos

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Hold on to your sombrero, your skillet, and your EpiPen. Welcome to Jalisco, Mexico—specifically Lago de Moreno, where Juan Pablo Villalobos has set his second politically warped novel, Quesadillas. It’s a wacky performance, a Mexican-ified Kabuki script. Villalobos is one tablespoon Eugene Ionesco, desperately but hopefully advocating nihilism; a dash of Harold Pinter, catapulting his characters into oblivion; and a pinch of Suzan Lori-Parks, igniting political allegory with sibling rivalry. All in all, he has cooked up a messy concoction of absurdist theater and magical realism.

Lago de Moreno is a bleak, black hole of a village on the brink of gentrification. It’s where we meet Oreste and his family, a rag-tag team of colorful and emotionally “mutilated” characters. Oreste is our guide through his vibrant and colorful world of economic disenfranchisement, watermelons, and “bovine eroticism”.  He is the least “hysterical and violent” of his six siblings, the most raucous being his oldest brother, Aristotle, who takes him on a quest to find their missing “imaginary” twins, Castor and Pollux. (All of the children are named after characters in ancient Greek literature.) It’s not long before they get distracted and arm themselves with a magical EpiPen in order to hunt aliens.

Losing the twins is actually not this family’s biggest worry. Next door, a wealthy Polish family has recently built a mansion that dwarfs Oreste’s family’s small fixer-upper. We watch our teenage narrator take his first bite out of capitalism’s bitter tortilla. Oreste’s realization sparks a deranged escape through the wild, urban sprawl of Jalisco where he encounters “feral dogs of unlikely colors, roads and streets carpeted with their squashed bodies… rich people who foolishly persisted in thinking that the middle class existed; and poor people, poorer people…infinitely poor.” Oreste revels in this twisted, iridescent, anarchist carnival.

Now is where Villalobos’s stage requires serious special effects. Although Oreste is a clueless nomad, he discovers that simply by pushing the red button on his EpiPen he’s able to teleport and fix electronic appliances. He magically makes busted blenders spin their blades and radios retrieve their signals. He becomes a quick-buck-making mechanic. But the gig is short lived and he mysteriously lands back at home with two angry parents and few explanations. Ashamed, he decides, “sometimes dignity is achieved by humiliating oneself. It seems confusing, but it’s not: it’s the life we poor people have to live.” It’s a message that would resonate with one of Ionesco’s rhinoceroses. Yet in terms of justifying the financial inequities of globalization, probably none of Lori-Parks’s protagonists would agree.

This is the divided nature of Quesadillas: part farce, part political memoir, part hyperbolic fiction, it’s a fast-paced, mind-bending journey, where transitions and explanations are often omitted. We learn that Oreste has been accused of stealing from the Polish family. What he stole? We’re not sure, but it’s decided that he will “work to pay back the psychological damage” he caused the neighbors by assisting Jaroslaw, the Polish father, in his artificial cattle inseminator business. What is initially an effort to demonstrate “old fashioned economic exploitation” evolves into an admission of teenage sexuality. “The sensation of heat around my hand made me feel at home, but not in my parents’ home, in my home, a place in the world that was mine and gave me a sense of comfort.” Oreste’s discovery is the kind of thrill that could merit itself a deleted scene from Pinter’s The Lover (if it were set on a farm).

The book’s Spanish title—Si viviéramos en un lugar normal, which translated is “If We Lived Somewhere Normal”—feels more appropriate than Quesadillas. The cheesy tortilla sandwich makes many appearances throughout the novel but the overarching message is homecoming. Oreste yearns for experience outside of his eccentric family and their woes. Villalobos sheds light on this theme in every chapter, but the choppy, passive translation often obscures his effort. Most of the book is translated verbatim. The text is littered with ‘of’s’ (i.e. “He took leave of his employees”) in places where there could just be two simple nouns, and the heavy, formal jargon weighs down this otherwise artful plot.

“Acacias and more acacias, flocks of wood pigeons, dust clouds,” hectares of watermelons and shady willow trees and eucalyptus—Quesadillas’s landscape is deliciously captivating. When this comedic thriller gets out of hand, Lago de Moreno’s scenery is our reliable respite. It only becomes more important toward the end of the novel, when Oreste’s family is forced out of their home so that the city can turn their once-devastated neighborhood into a housing development. The family moves into a one-room house on Oreste’s grandfather’s farm, and suddenly, in a divine Pinter-esque miracle (à la Moonlight), the missing twins reappear on horseback. Immediately, an army of ghosts of high-ruling Mexican politicians approaches the family and threatens to take over Grandfather’s farm. Oreste whips out the EpiPen and with several clicks of the red button constructs their dream house and the ghosts disappear. Curtain.

Just like anything by Lori-Parks, Villalobos refrains from the use of conspicuous metaphors. And like Lori-Parks’s characters, Oreste and his family only become stronger under the bond of economic oppression. But erase the political hue, and Quesadillas is pure fantastical rapture, a kaleidoscopic story about anger and adolescence. It’s a convoluted ride and it’s easy to get lost, but it’s worth it—and not just for a taste of genuine, old school magical-realism.

Julie Morse lives in San Francisco and is a poetry teacher. She can be found @JulieMorse16. More from this author →