Novella a Day in May #25

Quesadillas – Juan Pablo Villalobos (2012, trans. Rosalind Harvey 2013) 180 pages

Quesadillas is Juan Pablo Villalobos’ second novel, which I picked up having greatly enjoyed his first, Down the Rabbit Hole. Also, it’s published by AndOtherStories, who really are a wonderful publisher of contemporary, mainly translated, fiction. I highly recommend checking out their catalogue.

Back to Quesadillas. Like Down the Rabbit Hole, it is told from a child’s perspective, this time an older, more wordly child as Orestes (his father loves Greek mythology) is 13 years old. He lives with his five brothers, one sister and parents in a town where:

“there are more cows than people, more charro horsemen than horses, more priests than cows, and the people like to believe in the existence of ghosts, miracles, spaceships, saints and so forth.”

His mother insists the family is middle-class (unlikely as their home is “a shoe box with a lid made from a sheet of asbestos”) while his father swears profusely at the television:

“My father remained loyal to his healthy habit of insulting all politicians, applying a level of hostility in direct proportion to the devaluation of the peso.”

This is 1980s Mexico, where there is economic chaos and corrupt elections. Telling the tale from a 13-year-old’s point of view enables Villalobos to make astute political points about the impact of state mismanagement on the poor, without being overly didactic:

“ ‘we only have thirty-seven quesadillas and 800 grams of cheese left.’

We entered a phase of quesadilla rationing that led to the political radicalisation of every member of my family. We were all well 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 and 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”

Orestes’ twin brothers (no prizes for guessing they’re called Castor and Pollux) go missing and Oreo (as he’s known) sets off with older brother Aristotle to find them. Aristotle is convinced they’ve been abducted by aliens. After a fight, Oreo heads off alone and experiences life on the road. He manages to make money through peculiar means (there is a slight vein of magic realism running through the novella which explodes in all-out weirdness at the end) before returning home.

“What they were asking me to do was to start making up some lies that tallied with their idea of the world, damn it. But I hadn’t come home to tell the truth or learn to lie. I had come back because the class struggle had worn me out and I wanted to eat quesadillas for free.”

Quesadillas has a strong narrative voice in Oreo and it is funny, engaging and astute. The humour and surreal elements never obscure the portrayal of corruption or poverty. An entertaining and thought-provoking read.

“I’m bi-winning.” (Charlie Sheen)

As a companion piece to my post on Booker nominees, I thought I’d celebrate Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North winning the 2014 Man Booker by looking at two previous winners. Hence bi-winning – see, Charlie Sheen makes sense, he just needs the right context….

success

Firstly, The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai (Penguin, 2006) which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Desai’s prize-winning skill is evident from the first paragraph:

“All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depth. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.”

Sai has been schooled by nuns , and leaves to live with her grandfather and his cook in a damp, faded mansion at the foot of the Himalayas. All three live elsewhere in their minds.  The sad judge thinks more and more on his past in England, Sai is enamoured of her maths tutor, and the cook is preoccupied with his son Biju who is living the dream in America:

“Biju lay on his mattress and watched the movement of the sun through the grate on the row of buildings opposite. From every angle that you looked at this city without a horizon, you saw more buildings going up like jungle creepers, starved for light, holding perpetual half-darkness congealed at the bottom, the day shafting through the maze, slivering into apartments at precise and fleeting times …”

The reality is that Biju hops from one low-paid job to another, part of the unseen masses that keep the economy rolling, without a green card, without rights.  The rights of people form the background of the story, as the Gorkhaland movement gains momentum:

“The anger had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out they, they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones who wouldn’t slip through, who would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations”

Lola and Noni are two elderly sisters, dreaming of genteel retirement, yanked into the present day by the forces of the oppressed demanding land rights.  Desai balances the personal and political perfectly, showing the effect on the individual and the nation with equal sensitivity:

“This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.”

“There they were, the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger-than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past vs. present, justice vs. injustice – the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.”

As both individuals and nations struggle with notions of identity, intricately bound together yet inherently unstable, Desai demonstrates how the big questions in life exist simultaneously in the everyday and across the sweep of history.

Secondly, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011), which won the Man Booker in 2011.  This is a very different novel to The Inheritance of Loss, taking a brief (150 pages) look at a deliberately small life, lived quietly.

“And that’s life, isn’t it?  Some achievements and some disappointments.  It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so […] History isn’t the lies of the victors…It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”

Memory and its unreliability is a dominant theme in the book – Barnes demonstrates that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.

“Who was it who said memory is what we thought we’d forgotten?  And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent.  But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

The narrator in this instance is Tony, detailing two episodes in his largely uneventful life: the time around leaving school for university when his friend Adrian killed himself, and the present day where he has retired from work  and a legacy left to him prompts a re-evaluation of the past.  The Sense of an Ending is a melancholy book, as the title implies, but it feels real rather than outright depressing.  Tony is not admirable, but he’s not especially despicable either.  He is aware of his shortcomings and has achieved a resigned acceptance of them.  But this is not to suggest the novel is uneventful  – in a short space Barnes creates a narrative drive that carries you through to a powerful, unsettling ending.

Having been nominated three times previously and failed to grab the prize, I can’t tell you how much I hope this is how Barnes reacted when he finally won:

fantastic