Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey & with an introduction by Neel Mukherjee)

1.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novella Quesadillas* is set in the Mexican backwater of Lado De Moreno,  in a house on a hill called Cerro de la Chingada (which roughly translates into “the armpit”) and tells the adventures of a boy named Orestes.  “Oreo” for short.  This follow-up to last years’ Down the Rabbit Hole is about many things: adolescent angst,  class economics and the impact of  gentrification on a family. And you can’t leave out: alien abduction, sibling rivalry and grass-roots revolution… which should just about cover the first 2 chapters.

Orestes is the second of seven children (reduced to five in the first few pages when the fake-twins Castor & Pollux go missing).  All – Aristotle, Orestes, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor and Pollux – are named for classical Greeks. Despite their father being a  high school teacher the family lives in abject poverty, surviving on a diet of quesadillas.   A good portion of the narrative is spent describing the varieties of quesadilla Orestes’ mother cooks.  Changes to her recipe directly correspond to changes in the Mexican economy.

We entered a phase of quesadilla rationing that led to the political radicalization 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 – listen in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.

Like Tochtli, the hero of Down the Rabbit Hole, Orestes is unhappy with his family’s circumstances and trapped in a world of his parents making.  But there the similarities end.  Orestes and his  problems in no way resemble those of a Mexican drug lord’s son. He is speaking to us from 25 years in the future about his 1980’s adolescent self; describing “the period when I passed from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to youth, blithely conditioned by what some people call a provincial world-view, or a local philosophical system.”   This system collapses when a wealthy family moves next door and his own family’s poverty becomes glaringly apparent.

‘Father, forgive me for being poor.’

‘Being poor is not a sin, my child.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘No.’

‘But I don’t want to be poor, so I’ll probably end up stealing things or killing someone to stop being poor.’

‘One must be dignified in poverty, my child. One must learn to live in poverty with dignity. Jesus Christ our Lord was poor.’

‘Oh, and are you priests poor?’

‘Times have changed.’

‘So you’re not?’

‘We don’t concern ourselves with material questions. We take care of the spirit.  Money doesn’t interest us.’

My father said the same thing when, in order to prove my mother was lying, I asked him if we were poor or middle class.  He said that money didn’t matter, that what mattered was dignity.  That confirmed it: we were poor.

This scene takes place after the disappearance of the fake twins.  Oreo goes on to consider the relative merits (more quesadillas!) of getting rid of a few more siblings.

Irreverent, profane and strangely touching – Villalobos and his translator Rosalind Harvey have captured the sarcastic and rebellious voice of adolescence.  Just as  they did a 7-year old’s innocence while describing a world he didn’t fully understand. Oreo’s take on the world is ridiculously funny.  At its best Quesadillas is George Carlin-brand comedy; laced with anger and frustration and politics and sheer astonishment at the absurdity of human foible.  As the novella progresses the situations increase in absurdity to the point of incredulity.  And yet Villalobos always provides a possible, if unlikely, explanation.  Regardless, most readers will happily suspend their disbelief for the brief period of time it takes to breeze through this book.    That’s the beauty of the novella: longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.  An author has the time to throw out a few curve balls, be a little crazy and break some rules.

All without running the risk of losing his audience.


Publisher:  FSG Originals, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 374 53395 3


*FSG Originals published the U.S. edition of Quesadillas.  The imprint has positioned itself as Farrar Strauss & Giroux’s “edgy” paperback division – meant to target the publisher’s  “well-educated, pop-culture-obsessed, young-ish urban readership” whose needs, one assumes, were not being met by the house’s current catalog and who were more likely to seek out the non-traditional offerings of smaller, independent publishers. There are a few facts that I find interesting about this.  First that the FSG Originals catalog is a carefully curated (or life-styled, as they say in the fashion world) mix of titles – some of which in their original incarnations were websites, apps, and other non-traditional/non-book storytelling mediums; in 2013 FSG Originals introduced a Digital Originals program; the aggressive targeting of a specific demographic of consumer; and that both the Villalobos titles were originally released by & Other Stories – the UK indie publisher (with a U.S. office) that’s been making a name for itself with a roster of unusual and  innovative authors like Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rodrigo de Souza Leao & Deborah Levy.

The Colonel: A Novel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (translated from the Persian by Tom Patterdale)

A basic grasp of 20th Century Iranian history is advisable if you plan to read Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel, published in English last month by Melville House Books.  Readers might be able to get by on the information provided by the publisher in footnotes and a glossary, but a little time spent on Wikipedia can’t hurt.  (I also recommend Lisa Hill’s excellent review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog).  The Colonel is both a political novel and a family drama – knowledge of the former is essential in understanding the latter.  To complicate matters further: it also functions as a Persian fable.

Two colonels are referenced in the title.  The first, “the colonel” (always in lowercase letters), is the novel’s protagonist and one of its two narrators.  He served in the military under the Shah.  After Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ousted the colonel was arrested and sent to prison. (I’m fuzzy as to whether this was because of his politics or because he killed his wife in a drunken rage).  He has five children.  The eldest son, Amir, witnessed his mother’s murder.

Amir is the novel’s second narrator.  His life, in many ways, mirrors that of his father’s.  Both men have troubled pasts.  Both men supported different, fallen regimes (Amir supported Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh who deposed, and was later deposed by, the Shah); both were imprisoned and tortured; both men played a part in their wives’ deaths. Their combined actions and choices – particularly their political choices – have led to the destruction of their family, contributing to the deaths of Amir’s two brothers and youngest sister.  A second sister is married to a brutal opportunist who holds both his wife and her family in contempt.   At the point where the story begins Amir and his married sister are the only children of the colonel still alive.  We meet the other three in flashbacks.  We learn the details of their deaths and, as the story unfolds, understand that they were sacrificed.

The catalyst which sets the story into motion is a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  The colonel is summoned to collect the body of his fourteen year old daughter, Parvaneh, from the police station.  She died in custody and he must bury her before dawn in an unmarked grave.  Two soldiers accompany him to assist with the burial, which turns into something of a farce… almost a comedy of errors (except it’s not funny).  There is no women to bathe the body, they have no shovels to dig the grave, the rain never stops, the ghost of the colonel’s dead wife makes a tragic appearance… as does the ghost of the second Colonel.

The second colonel of the title – The Colonel (always capitalized) is a historical figure.  The details of his life would be familiar to most Iranian school children.  Footnotes and the book’s glossary provide some detail.  To my mind, his importance is more as a symbol and less as a man.  The colonel keeps his picture in a place of prominence in his home.  As he loses each of his children he places their photographs in the frame at The Colonel’s feet.

Dowlatabadi moves back and forth between the colonel and Amir to tell the story.   The Colonel is non-linear, filled with flashbacks, memories and hallucinations – making the timeline of events sometimes difficult to follow.  I initially believed this was done on purpose to reflect the states of minds of the two narrators.  To demonstrate how their individual psyches and family are deteriorating apace with the nation.  But if Dowlatabadi meant for this novel to be taken as a fable then it’s possible that what I identified as hallucinations were meant to be visions or, even, actual occurrences.   This is just one instance among many where I fell short as a reader.  (Another being my failed attempts to grasp the amazingly complex political and cultural traditions depicted in the book).

Iran seems to be a country where lines are constantly blurred – with so many regime changes and each member of the colonel’s family aligning themselves with a different political cause –  friends and enemies are difficult to keep track of.   It wasn’t entirely shocking when Amir welcomed his former torturer, a man named Khezr Javid, into his father’s home as a guest and hid him from the revolutionary mobs crowding the streets.  Or for that same torturer to reappear later on dressed as a Mulla, now serving in the new government.  After telling Amir how he also served the Shah at one time, he explains his situation  -

“Listen, boy.  Political police are like a religion.  Has anyone ever heard of a religion being overthrown?… A new gang may take over, but they don’t go and overthrow the very basis of the old régime.  I grant you that some of us were strung up by a few of your hot-headed brethren, but that’s not the end of the story.  Not by any means.  We’re the very foundation of everything, we are the underpinning of the state, my engineer friend!”

____________

I’ve read only one other Iranian author.  The difference between Shahriar Mandapour and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is palpable.  Both write about the political and social climate of Iran – but Censoring An Iranian Love Story is more indulgent in its tone.  Mandapour creates a metafiction narrative that acknowledges the reality of his main characters’ situations, but forces upon them unrealistically happy endings (while acknowledging the implausibility of these endings).  Whereas Dowlatabadi is the complete opposite. The Colonel has not been published in Iran due to censorship.  This poses a problem.   He is the quintessential Iranian author, as Mark Twain is the quintessential American author and Dickens the British, even in his open criticism of the current government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  And so his novel is dependent on and assumes readers with a certain level of knowledge about his subject matter.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder, outside of Iran and it’s neighbors, how many people have that knowledge?  Dowlatabadi’s writing is more dramatic…grittier… then Mandapour.  His story takes place in damp basements, muddy streets, dark mortuaries and smokey, confined spaces.  He paints a dark and bitter picture of Iran and its politics – of a nation that sacrifices its young people.  While I don’t doubt the truth in what he says, is it an objective or a subjective truth?  Amir speaks of the events leading up to his sister’s, Parvaneh’s, death.

That was when people started talking: it was the duty of any respectable family to repudiate a girl like that and send her packing.  She was now mahdour ud-dam*, fair Islamic game.  It would be an honour killing.

A few pages later the colonel, that girl’s father, recalls speaking to a crowd at his matryed son’s funeral (the morning after burying Parvaneh in an un-marked grave).

…the memory of what he had said about Parvaneh over the unseen, echoing loudspeakers at Masoud’s funeral.  He could not believe that he would ever have been capable of uttering those words against a child who was not even fourteen, a girl to whom he was both a mother and a father.  Had it really been his own voice that had yelled:  ‘This girl is mahdour ud-dam… She must be killed.  She is impure, possessed by the devil and now lost to us all…’

Passages like these are incredibly disturbing to read.  Particularly for a reader without the experience to recognize concrete fact from what is being shaped by the author’s opinions and artistry.  Much like his character Amir,  Dolwatabadi’s writing portrays him as disenchanted with and disenfranchised from his homeland.  Reading these pages it’s difficult to find any redemption or hope for Iran.  I don’t dispute the book’s brilliance, even I recognize the genius behind it.  But for those readers (and I count myself among them) coming to these pages ignorant of the background material, The Colonel is an intense experience.

Note:  The Colonel was nominated for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is being whispered as a possible future Nobel Prize winner.

*deserving of death

Publisher:  Melville House, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 6121 9132 4