Mexico – Quesadillas

There are no translated Science Fiction or Fantasy novels written in Mexico. I spent many hours on Google in pursuit of this quest. All I managed to come up with was a post, who like me, was asking for the Mexican Lord of the Rings, and a review of the all-too brief science fiction boom of the nineties, which did not result in any translated works. I blame magic realism.

One of the most frequent complaints I encountered while researching Latin America had to do with the strong demand for Magic Realism. Fantasy and science fiction are perceived by many publishers as less worthy, and a much more risky pursuit. It makes it extremely difficult to get a full-length novel published, let alone translated. I could have gone with a short-story, or a Mexican-American author (or skipped Mexico), but I wasn’t willing to compromise.

I did manage to discover an active Mexican science fiction and fantasy writer, Gerardo Horacio Porcayo, but his work hasn’t been translated. Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote Mexican Gothic, and she is Mexican by birth. However, she does not currently reside in Mexico and views herself as Canadian by inclination. I have really been making an effort to focus on authors still residing in their native countries. Ultimately, I settled on Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villabolos as it was literally the only option I could find in Speculative Fiction in Translation. It’s absurdly funny to the point of breaking reality, but I still would have preferred the Mexican lord of the rings.

Poetry, Quesadillas, Insults, and Guilt

“If I’m really going to report everything that happened, I’m going to have to write down a whole load of mother-related insults.”

No, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’ll talk about Orestes and his insane family. His father is a professional insulter and a high school teacher who doesn’t make enough money because he’s a teacher. His mother is a mistress of dishing out guilt and quesadillas, and there are also six other siblings: Aristotle, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor and Pollux. His parents had a thing for Greek names. 

Orestes is the second oldest, and a champion poetry reciter, not that that means much. Competition for quesadillas is fierce. There are eight other mouths in the family, sixteen hands, eighty fingers, and never enough quesadillas. Those who weren’t quick would end up hungry, and the daily battles were fierce. If only fratricide were an option. Oh wait!

Kidding, but Castor and Pollux do go missing. It’s a national tragedy, but Orestes rejoices as there are now more quesadillas for everyone, but then Aristotle convinces him to embark on a journey to look for the twins. It’s a chance to escape his life which makes absolutely no sense and instead seek out the absurdity of other places. 

The Quesadillas Are An Absurd Metaphor

“The inflationary quesadillas were thick in order to use up the cheese that my mother had bought in a state of panic at the announcement of a new rise in the price of food and the genuine risk that her supermarket bill would go from billions to trillions of pesos. The 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. Devaluation quesadillas became less substantial for psychological rather than economic reasons – they were the quesadillas of chronic national depression – and were the most common in my parents’ house. Finally you had the poor man’s quesadillas, in which the presence of cheese was literary: you opened one up and instead of adding melted cheese my mother had written the word ‘cheese’ on the surface of the tortilla. We were yet to experience the horror of a total absence of quesadillas.”

This book is set in 1980s Mexico, and it does an excellent job of portraying what it means to be on the bottom of the dung heap with no hope for a better future, and it does it using quesadillas as a metaphor, and language which I don’t want to repeat. I did not closely follow the politics of the story. Instead I allowed myself to enjoy the satire which is both biting and funny.

Life is full of injustices for Orestes, and a mastery of poetry is a very poor skill for combating them. I thoroughly enjoyed his futile attempts at manipulation, his sense of insult which he inherited from his father, and how he so often gets his just and unjust deserts because no one cares. That’s life. Especially life in Mexico back then.

The names of the characters enable them to act out a very real Mexican adaptation of a Greek tragedy that is both hilarious and absurd, and utterly destroys the source material. An example of this can be seen in Aristotle’s theory that Castor and Pollux were kidnapped by aliens because yes that would totally work in the original story. I’m surprised Villabolos hasn’t had to dodge any lightning bolts.

I probably would have enjoyed the book more if I understand the politics and social criticism better, but in this case I didn’t feel a particularly strong desire, and the book was strong enough to stand on its own merits. It literally cracks reality up.

The Omer today is courage in foundation. This book is about many things, but it is also about the desire to escape, and escaping takes courage. However, sometimes when the foundations are so shoddy escape is the only option, unless you are willing to stay until the entire structure falls apart (as honor would dictate). Orestes isn’t that stupid, and life doesn’t care. It still took courage (and greed and desperation) on his part. I’m going to applaud the courage.


About the Author

Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973, and lives in Barcelona, where he writes for various publications and teaches courses in Spanish literature. He has written literary criticism, film criticism, and short stories. Villalobos is the author of Down the Rabbit Hole (FSG, 2012), which has been translated into fifteen languages.


Author: Juan Pablo Villalobos

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Published: 2012

Pages: 169

Format reviewed: Digital