See, there are four categories, each reflecting a different national economic reality: inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, evaluation quesadillas, and poor man’s quesadillas. For one particular large, poor family in Mexico, the size of the quesadillas—and the “savage struggle” that erupts over them at dinner—is more important than news of the country’s political upheaval. And when two of this family’s children go missing, the others take comfort in getting “more quesadillas apiece in the nightly allocation.”
I’ve only begun to sketch out the warped magic of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ wonderful Quesadillas. It’s a sort of picaresque novella, narrated by 13-year-old Orestes (Oreo for short), one of seven children in a family that’s so poor they can’t even imagine “the things you can do when you have money.” The patriarch passes time complaining about the corrupt government; the matriarch fixes quesadillas and insists that the family isn’t poor, but rather middle class; and Oreo’s siblings act out “fist fights between the rebels and the government,” and sometimes disappear.
The loose structure of Quesadillas allows Villalobos a nimble, free-associative narrative. Oreo is a terrific protagonist—profane, irreverent, self-deprecating. Even though he’s telling his own story as an older man, he never seems distant from the events he describes: He searches for the alien race that his brother believes abducted their siblings. He runs away from home, using a mysterious device to fix electronic equipment in exchange for food. He works a job artificially inseminating cows. Villalobos moves briskly, fitting these events and more into 157 pages. Every sentence deserves an exclamation point.
Quesadillas is a comic novel, yes, but like good comedy, it opens up darker subjects. Villalobos concerns himself with poverty, and even though the novella is set in the 1980s, things aren’t much better today in many parts of Mexico. A rich Polish family builds a mansion next door to the narrator’s “shoebox” (“Seen from a distance, our house looked like the Poles’ dog kennel”), and soon the threat of gentrified urban sprawl hangs over Oreo and his family. Eventually, Oreo concludes that the rich are “like God, who tightens the noose but doesn’t strangle you.”
Villalobos’ sense of play keeps this book from feeling like a sermon, however. Quesadillas takes place in a town where people believe in “ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints,” and the line between reality and fantasy blurs depending on the fullness of Oreo’s belly. Some readers may find the novella’s absurd final pages too convenient, but Oreo has an answer to that too: “How many coincidences have been lost,” he wonders, “because their victims weren’t paying attention? Life might be a festival of coincidences!”
This is a rich book—an inflationary quesadilla, overflowing with cheese.