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.

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Novella a Day in May #13

Such Small Hands – Andres Barba (trans. Lisa Dillman 2017) 101 pages

Well, this was super creepy. Institutionalised children *shudder*

Seven year old Marina is in a car accident.

“’Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma.’ Lips pronounce them without stopping. Quick, dry words. They come in thousands of different, unpredictable ways, sometimes unbidden. Suddenly they just fall, as if onto a field. Marina’s learned to say them without sadness, like a name recited for strangers, like my name is Marina and I’m seven years old. ‘My father died instantly, my mother is in the hospital.’”

After her mother dies, Marina is sent to an orphanage, taking a doll given to her by the psychologist, which she has also called Marina. The other girls are both mesmerised and wary of Marina.

“Marina shrank and we grew. She stood alone, with her doll, by the statue of Saint Anne, watching us. Or was it the doll who was watching? We didn’t know who the doll really was. Because sometimes she looked like Marina, and she, too, seemed to have a hungry heart, and clenched fists close to her body, and she, too, was silent even when invited to join in; and she nodded her head back and forth, something we’d never seen a doll do before.  And she seemed persecuted and excluded, too.”

Neither Marina or the girls understand the relationships they forge. There is fear and eroticism mixed in with tentative gestures towards friendship. Marina’s scar from the accident is a source of wonder.

“‘You can’t feel it?’

‘No. Well, only a little.’

Desire passed through the girl, too. Like stagnant water that suddenly begins to drain, imperceptibly.

And devotion mixed in with the desire.

‘Do you want to touch it?’

‘Yes.’

But the girl didn’t react right away.”

Barba gradually builds the tension and develops the girls’ games into something deeply disturbing and sinister, but wholly believable (there is an afterword which explains the real-life inspiration for the story). This tale will haunt me for a long time.

“My roommate got a pet elephant. Then it got lost. It’s in the apartment somewhere.” (Steven Wright)

This week’s theme stems from a very boring reason. But I try to pick themes that relate to my life or what’s happening in the world in some way, and my life is very boring. In fact, the most remarkable thing about it is just how dull it is. So brace yourself reader, and try & stay awake while I tell you that I am a leasehold flat owner.

I’ve always hated this because my managing agents are inept slimebags truly reprehensible human beings, but I spent an evening last week consoling a friend who is a share-of-freeholder and is engaged in a long dispute with her one of her neighbours/fellow freehold sharers, which has now turned vaguely medieval and who she refers to by a most unsavoury nickname.

If you’re still with me, you deserve a little treat. Here’s a trailer for one of my favourite ever films which is rather apt:

So as I spent a long time thinking about flats recently, the theme is novels set in apartment blocks. Firstly, Paradises by Iosi Havilio (2012, trans. Beth Fowler 2013). Apparently this is a sequel to the author’s previous novel Open Door, which I haven’t read, but it didn’t seem to restrict my understanding of Paradises, which I found compelling. Following the death of her partner, an unnamed woman leaves her country home with her small child, Simon, and moves to Buenos Aires. She gets a job at the local zoo:

“Something about the gloomy light, the small of the enclosure, the watchfulness of the snakes in captivity produces a hole in my stomach, an anguish that forces me to increase my pace. I skirt the large tank of water turtles, ignore the lizards walk past the door saying nursery and go outside.”

The janitor, Canetti, takes a shine to her. He used to be a bank treasurer before losing his job through fraud and is filled with bitterness. He shows the woman the el Buti squat, presided over by the obese, immobile, morphine-addicted Tosca.  She moves in:

“And yet despite the filth, the heat, those intestinal noises, and the smell of shit that rises in waves, at some point in the early hours Canetti’s words from the first time he brought me here come to mind: We’re safe here. I even babble them to myself to confirm it. And so I relax and rest a bit, although still without sleeping. On the third day I cover the windows with black bin bags to prolong the night.”

The voice of the young woman is matter-of-fact and she presents her extreme circumstances almost indifferently (Paradises has been compared to L’Etranger). This, combined with the present-tense, captured the numbness of grief and the sense of just getting through each moment. Yet according to the introduction by Alex Clark, the narrator’s passivity and weird equanimity was present in Open Door too, so maybe it’s just her character. Either way, I found her voice distinct and engaging. We follow her through her life as she juggles motherhood, work, relationships with idiodyncratic but wholly believable characters: seemingly spiky Iris who cares for Simon; the unpredictable Eloisa who seems to have no boundaries at all and drags the narrator along with her; the various residents of el Buti.

“each of us has to devise our truth in relation to the other”

The squat is surrounded by paradise trees, whose berries are poisonous and whose bark holds the cure. This duality is repeated throughout the novel: alienation sits alongside connection, love and grief are side by side. Paradises is an unsettling novel but at no point did I feel alienated from the unusual, detached woman telling the story. A remarkable achievement.

Let’s take a Vincent Cassel break (that’s definitely a thing, isn’t it?)

Secondly, A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988) is set at “14 Church End Villas, South Kensington, that rooming house, shabby but clean, that today is a smart and expensive set of flats, gutted and restructured, far beyond the means of medical students, nurses, and the likes of us as we were.”

Narrated by the young widow Mrs Hawkins, she describes her time at the rooming house in the 1950s.  She moves between jobs in publishing with little respect for her employers:

“Sir Alec was thin and grey and his voice matched his looks. It sounded like a wisp of smoke wafting from some burning leaves hidden by a clump of lavender.”

“I had a sense he was offering things abominable to me, like decaffeinated coffee or coitus interruptus

Spark’s satire of publishing and writers is a joy, but A Far Cry From Kensington is also about capturing a moment in time when society is on the cusp of change. Relationships between the sexes are changing, and Mrs Hawkins pushes against societal expectations of women in the mid-20th century. She is resentful of being characterised as a capable widow (she feels this is partly due to her obesity and begins determinedly losing weight).

Meanwhile, there is tension in the house as someone is sending threatening anonymous letters to Wanda, a European seamstress who rooms there. The different residents begin to suspect each other while landlady Milly is certain it’s an outsider:

“Milly was upset at the suggestion that it was someone in the house, to the point of being almost mesmerized by the idea. She also feared further letters. ‘These things happen in threes’ said Milly in her way of uttering bits of folk-wisdom; she was spooning tea into the heated teapot. She always mixed tea with maxims.”

Mrs Hawkins is a great narrator: matter-of-fact, funny, uncompromising.

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do.”

The plot around the victimisation of Wanda is frankly a bit bonkers and easily the weakest point in the novel, but despite a weak plot A Far Cry From Kensington is full of Spark’s wit and razor-sharp observation. Not a word in this short novel is wasted.

To end, a video putting the brutalist architecture of the Thamesmead flats to good use:

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” (REM)

Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest suggested this week’s title & theme  – I think we all know why.

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Starting with an obvious choice, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2009, tr. Lisa Dillon 2015), published by the wonderful &Other Stories Press – I wrote about another of their Mexican novels here. Herrera looks at the illegal immigrant experience through Makina, seeking out her brother at the behest of her mother, and desperate to return home.

“You’re going to cross and you’re going to get your feet wet and you’re going to be up against real roughnecks; you’ll get desperate of course, but you’ll see wonders and in the end you’ll find your brother, and even if you’re sad, you’ll wind up where you need to be.”

Makina’s journey is both physical and mythical.  As she travels through her homeland she has to ask men with pseudonyms for different types of help to get her across the border. The places she visits have similarly folkloric names: ‘The Place Where The Hills Meet’, ‘The Big Chilango’, ‘The Place Where People’s Hearts Are Eaten’ and across the border ‘The Place Where The Wind Cuts Like A Knife’. By not grounding Signs Preceding the End of the World in recognisable names and places, Herrera expands the simple journey to something much larger. Any tale of illegal immigration is going to have particular political resonances, but Herrera makes his heroine an Odysseus character and her trials a quest. While the tale is not surreal, there is a sense, as in myths and fables, that anything could happen:

“She looked into the mirrors: in front of her was her back: she looked behind but found only never-ending front, curving forward, as if inviting her to step through its thresholds. If she crossed them all, eventually, after many bends, she’d reach the right place; but it was a place she didn’t trust.”

Herrera is a writer who invents neologisms (definitely worth reading the interesting Translator’s Note for this novel) and so is fascinated by language. Through Makina’s journey he tracks the way that boundaries of countries, self and language are all permeable, and how this creates a modern, constantly shifting society:

“Makina senses in their tongue not a sudden absence but a shrewd metamorphosis, a self-defensive shift. They might be talking in perfect latin tongue and without warning begin to talk in perfect anglo tongue and keep it up like that, alternating between a thing that believes itself to be perfect  and a thing that believes itself to be perfect, morphing back and forth between two beasts until out of carelessness or clear intent  they suddenly stop switching tongues and start speaking that other one.”

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a fascinating, multi-layered novel, at once a story for our times but also engages with enduring, expansive themes. Hugely impressive.

And now I pause for thought to wonder if there are enough pictures of kittens in barrels to get me through a single news bulletin right now:

Secondly, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015) which I was alerted to last year by the many bloggers who loved this debut novel (written when the author was in her 40s – I must remember to tell my friend C who is coming to terms with the fact that she’s missed her window for those ‘30 Under 30’ type lists). I’m not going to buck the trend on this – I found it a compulsive read which I whizzed through to its gut-wrenching conclusion.

Peggy lives with her parents in the kind of north London middle-class bohemia that keeps Mini Boden in business.  Peggy doesn’t wear Mini Boden though, as it’s 1976 and her mother is busy being a concert pianist while her father gets into arguments with his friends in the North London Retreaters group. This collection of (male) survivalists are convinced nuclear war is imminent. A personal crisis forces Peggy’s father to act on his rhetoric, and he takes her to Germany, to live entirely isolated in “Die Hutte”, in the middle of a forest.  We know this fairytale has unravelled horribly from the opening line, told 9 years later by Peggy who is back in Highgate after a long absence:

“This morning, I found a black and white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar.”

The lie Peggy’s father told is astronomical: that the rest of the world has disappeared and they are the only two left living.

“ ‘We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes anymore,’ he said. ‘When to get up, when to go to church, when to go to work.’

I couldn’t remember my father ever going to church, or even to work.”

What follows is a narrative that moves back and forth between Peggy’s life in Die Hutte and that in 1985 Highgate with her mother and brother she never knew, Oskar. Fuller handles this extremely well, and I didn’t find the chopping back and forth disruptive or gimmicky. While not a thriller, Our Endless Numbered Days is definitely a page-turner, as Peggy’s comments drip-feed us information about what has gone on: there has been a fire, she has no hair, part of her ear is missing, her teeth are rotten, there is a man called Reuben involved in some way… and her father is no longer around.

The writing style is simple, and I found this a quick read, but the ideas are complex. Fuller is interested in the fantasies we tell ourselves and others in order to survive and the dangers inherent in not questioning these (insert heavy-handed political parallel here). She is interested in the price paid by powerless members of society when the powerful seek fulfilment by disregarding the needs of others (insert… well, you get the idea) and she is interested in the psychological fallout from childhood and our parents.  I saw the twists a mile off, and sometimes Peggy’s voice wavered, but this may have been intentional and it really didn’t matter. Peggy’s complex fairytale was both extreme and subtle, quite a feat.

“Oskar rapped his knuckles on the thick white ice which had risen like a soufflé out of a bucket hanging on a nail beside the back door. I recognised it, it was the bucket my father and I had used…Oskar laughed and turned the handle twisting it hard; his mouth twisting too with the effort. The tap snapped off. And for the first time since I had come home I cried – for the music, for Reuben, but most of all for the waste of a bucket.”

To end, goodbye to a poet and musician whose work is bringing me some comfort – as always – in these troubled times:

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” (Vincent van Gogh)

This is my contribution to Small Press September, hosted by Bibliosa. Do head over to her blog to read all about it and join in! The novels are also two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr.Rosalind Harvey, 2011), which I picked up after reading Shoshi’s excellent review.  It is published by And Other Stories, a not-for-private-profit company which concentrates mainly on translated fiction. That sentence makes me feel better about the world 🙂

9781908276285

Back to the novel: Tochtli (rabbit in Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico), tells us about his love of samurai films, hats, learning new words, and his life as the young son of a drug baron, Yolcaut (rattlesnake).

“I think we have a very good gang. I have proof. Gangs are all about solidarity. So solidarity means that because I like hats, Yolcaut buys me hats, lots of hats, so many that I have a collection from all over the world and all periods of the world. Although now more than new hats what I want is Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. I’ve already written it down on the list of things I want and given it to Miztli. That’s how we always do it, because I don’t go out much, so Miztli buys me all the things I want on orders from Yolcaut.”

The isolation is a necessary part of his father’s business, whose paranoia is an occupational hazard that is no doubt keeping them all alive. The tragic effect that this is having on young Tochtli becomes increasingly apparent as the story progresses. Tochtli accepts his life, knowing no different, but to the adult reader he displays worrying signs of severe anxiety: wanting his head shaved because he doesn’t want ‘dead’ hair on him, compulsively wearing hats, constant severe stomach pains, and later, after he sees something his father tried to keep hidden, selective mutism. He also takes violence pretty much in his stride:

“One of the things I’ve learnt from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet. Sometimes they need three or even fourteen bullets. It all depends where you aim them. If you put two bullets in their brains they’ll die for sure. But you can put up to 1,000 bullets in their hair and nothing will happen, though it might be fun to watch.”

Although dealing with extremely serious subject matter, there is humour is the novel, such as Tochtli’s description of the preparation for a drug run to Liberia which he also goes on in order to get one of his beloved pygmy hippos:

“By the way, Franklin Gomez started being Franklin Gomez yesterday in the airport. That’s what his passport from the country of Honduras says: Franklin Gomez. There were problems because Franklin Gomez didn’t want to be Franklin Gomez. Until Winston Lopez convinced him.”

In such a short tale (70 pages in my edition)Villalobos effectively widens the narrative of drug trade away from the usual barons/dealers/ users paradigm to show how the fallout from the industry can reach far and wide, including devastating those too young to have a choice about their own involvement. It is a truly moving story, not about drugs (you can read an article by the author where he refutes the term narcoliteratura here), but about children trying to cope with the messy, corrupt world adults create around them: sadly, pretty much a universal theme.

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy's Castle hat

Fellow hat enthusiast, the late Isabella Blow, wearing Philip Treacy’s Castle hat

Image from here

Secondly, The Notebook by Agota Kristof (1986, tr. Alan Sheridan, 1989) published by CB editions,  a publishing house which focuses on short fiction, poetry and translations. Kristof was Hungarian but was exiled to French-speaking Switzerland in 1956, and wrote this, her first novel, in French.

notebook

Like Down the Rabbit Hole, The Notebook is told from a child’s point of view, in this instance twin boys – we never know their individual names and they always use the first-person plural – who are evacuated to live with their maternal grandmother in the countryside of an unnamed nation, but which is generally thought to be Hungary.

“We call her Grandmother. People call her the Witch. She calls us ‘sons of a bitch’…Grandmother never washes. She wipes her mouth with the corner of her shawl when she has finished eating and drinking. She doesn’t wear knickers. When she wants to urinate, she just stops wherever she happens to be, spreads her legs and pisses on the ground under her skirt.”

This woman shows them no love or affection (although as the novel progresses we learn to recognise the small signs that she does care for them) and life is tough. They work on her smallholding and undertake various psychological ‘exercises’ to try and adjust to their straightened circumstances.

“ ‘My darlings! My loves! My joy! My adorable little babies!’ When we remember these words, our eyes fill with tears. We must forget these words because, now, nobody says such words to us and because our memory of them is too heavy a burden to bear. So we begin our exercise again in a different way…By repeating them we make these words gradually lose their meaning and the pain that they carry in them is reduced.”

The tone of the narration is astonishing. As the boys become more and more detached in an effort to preserve themselves from the horrors they witness, the reader is faced with filling in the gaps regarding what is happening. The delivery is so matter-of-fact that more the once I found myself stopping, thinking ‘Wait a minute, what the…’, going back and finding that something devastating had been described and I’d nearly missed it.

“Words that define feelings are very vague; it is better to avoid using them and to stick to description of objects, human beings and oneself; that is to say, to the faithful description of facts.”

The Notebook is a shattering work, and a challenging read. Human relationships are warped under the pressures of war. More than once, these pretty, golden twins get drawn into adult sex games. A young girl who is named after her birth anomaly – Harelip is apparently her given name – engages in some truly upsetting sexual acts. A neighbour behaves with horrific cruelty toward a group of starving people (presumably Jewish prisoners) and the boys wreak a terrible revenge (which they never admit in the text but you know what has happened and why). It is a difficult read but a powerful one, which does not shy away from the damage done when the acts of nations cause individuals to lose sight of their humanity. It is a political book, but not a polemical one: the twins’ equanimity leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

“Later, we have our own army and government again, but our army and government are controlled by our Liberators. Their flag flies over all the public buildings. The photograph of their leader is displayed everywhere. They teach us their songs and their dances; they show us their films in our cinemas. In the schools, the language of our liberators is compulsory; other foreign languages are forbidden.”

Highly recommended, but go in prepared – brilliantly written and completely brutal.

The Notebook was adapted into a film in 2013, which completely passed me by. From this trailer it looks excellent, and thankfully laws protecting children and animals means certain scenes are guaranteed to have not been filmed, surely?