Quesadillas – Juan Pablo Villalobos, tr. Rosalind Harvey

After the Writers’ Centre event on Quesadillas, I was longing to read the book so it was my first choice from the long list on offer for next year’s Summer Reads programme. I picked it up, headed for the nearest café and started reading…

Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, tr. Rosalind Harvey (And Other Stories, 2013)

Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, tr. Rosalind Harvey (And Other Stories, 2013)

I enjoyed this book but not as much as Down the Rabbit Hole, which disappointed me because I’d been looking forward to it so much. I think that’s because Oreo didn’t have (to me) such a vivid voice as Tochtli. It also didn’t quite match my sense of humour. It was very easy to read though, and kept me turning the pages, wanting to know what happened next. Despite knowing that the ending was very surreal and absurd before I started, I was still unprepared for the utter abruptness of the switch into the complete mayhem of the final chapter. I know I’m not the only person to feel that either. I understand what the author was trying to do in his take on magical realism and perhaps that feeling of let down is actually what he was aiming for. It’s certainly unsettling!

The idea of the different grades of quesadilla and the way they reflect the political realities and family’s mood is a great one, however. Here’s what Alfred Hickling had to say about them in Saturday’s Guardian Review:

The proximity of starvation, constant even within a family theoretically belonging to the professional classes, is calculated by Orestes according to an economic formula that might be known as the quesadilla index: “We were all aware of the roller-coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas …” At the very bottom of the pile come the dreaded “poor man’s quesadillas”, in which “the presence of cheese was literary: you opened one and instead of adding melted cheese my mother had written the word ‘cheese’ on the surface of the tortilla”.

I wish the reviewer had credited translator Rosalind Harvey’s inventiveness in tackling this section, keeping it light but conveying the bitterness behind the words – after all, it’s her phrasing he’s quoting.

I also enjoyed the idea that the craziness of the novel reflects the craziness of Mexican society, which is the motif underlying the original title: “if we lived somewhere normal”. Perhaps more of an understanding of the Mexican politics would have helped me to appreciate it more fully in the end.

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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