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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Juan Pablo Villalobos

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To purchase Quesadillas

Title: Quesadillas
Author: Juan Pablo Villalobos
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Quesadillas - US
Si viviéramos en un lugar normal - US
Quesadillas - UK
Quesadillas - Canada
Quesadillas - India
Si viviéramos en un lugar normal - España
  • Spanish title: Si viviéramos en un lugar normal
  • Translated by Rosalind Harvey
  • With an Introduction by Neel Mukherjee

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Our Assessment:

B : spirited, good fun, with a satiric edge

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 4/10/2013 Alfred Hickling
The Independent . 23/10/2013 Lucy Popescu
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/3/2014 Rachel Nolan
Publishers Weekly . 30/9/2013 .
TLS . 30/8/2013 Matt Lewis
World Lit. Today . 3-4/2014 Arthur Dixon

  From the Reviews:
  • "The high-keyed domestic comedy is enjoyable for its own sake, but provides cover for a satirical assault on the mendacity of Mexican politics." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Quesadillas is gloriously absurd, celebrates the fantastical, and plays with notions of magic realism. But it is Villalobos's quirky, laconic style that most impresses and marks him out as a writer of distinction." - Lucy Popescu, The Independent

  • "Villalobos mines Mexico for its everyday surrealism, even as he mocks how outsiders exoticize his country. (...) This time the homely -- the poverty and bad luck -- is fantastical. This is realism mixed with absurdism." - Rachel Nolan, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Calling it magical realism would be lazy, given the undertone of socially conscious indignation that underlies often-fantastical imagery (.....) With tidy, uncompromised prose, Villalobos has inaugurated a new kind of avant-garde novel, one whose grasp of certain dehumanizing political realities never erodes the power to dream something better." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Villalobos appears to share the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier's belief that the best way to represent life in Latin America is through the introduction of magic realism. Unlike Carpentier, however, he does not use magical realism to celebrate the uniqueness of his culture, but rather to condemn its absurdity." - Matt Lewis, Times Literary Supplement

  • "It can be read as a parody of the magical realism that supposedly characterizes Latin America, condemning this essentialist attitude with absurd magic and realism that is almost too real. Finally, it can be read as a Greek tragedy, with classically named characters in a family that seems destined to collapse. (...) Quesadillas is fast-paced and colloquial; it is troubling and funny all at once." - Arthur Dixon, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Quesadillas is narrated by the now-grown Orestes, recounting what happened to his family a quarter of a century earlier, in the mid-1980s, when he was in his early teens. He has half a dozen siblings, all with similarly ridiculous classical Greek names: Archilochus, Aristotle, Callimachus, Electra, and the fraternal twins Castor and Pollux; "Your dad really took the piss with those godawful names he gave you", as someone points out. They grow up in a fairly god forsaken town in Jalisco, Mexico, and given the family's limited resources there's a daily battle for the quesadillas up for grabs at mealtime.
       Orestes understands that the family is rather poorly situated -- despite his mother's protestations to the contrary:

     'We're not poor, Oreo, we're middle class,' replied my mother, as if one's socio-economic status were a mental state.
       Things improve slightly -- at least as far as the quesadillas go -- when the twins mysteriously disappear. And, in fact, the remaining kids are kind of jealous: "we all admitted that we'd love to be in the pretend twins' place, to go missing, to leave this lousy house". Eventually, Artistotle and Orestes simply run away, with Orestes cleverly finding a way to get by but also seeing for himself that the larger world isn't that much more of a paradise either; both he and later Aristotle also return into the miserable household-fold.
       The family gets new neighbors, too -- wealthy folks, with just one child -- and eventually they're forced out of even their horrible little house by expansion and development plans that they're powerless to oppose. The father, an inveterate ranter, refuses to accept how powerless he is, even as he's reminded:
You weren't in the right and you never will be. They're the ones who are always in the right, so what does it matter ?
       The novel begins with an attempt to attack the corrupt status quo -- which the family just watches from the sidelines -- but at the end the corruption is still as well entrenched. Villalobos offers a sort of fairy-tale ending for the family, as they create their new home -- after all:
     Weren't fantastic, wonderful things meant to happen to us all the time ? Didn't we speak to the dead ? Wasn't everyone always saying we were a surrealist country ?
       The far-fetched fantasy of the conclusion stands in contrast to the mundane reality that can indeed only be escaped in the wildest flights of fantasy .....
       Quesadillas is, in part, a sharp satire on corrupt Mexican politics, but for the most part this is a backdrop to Orestes' account, of his and his family's (mis)adventures in these years. Villalobos writes fluidly and amusingly, but there's relatively little mature adult reflection -- and this is also a novel with the attention-span of a thirteen-year-old. Villalobos also pulls back, or cuts short, many of the episodes, including when Orestes is solicited by a politician, who sees in the youngster the makings of the kind of trickster that could do well in the political game. And so, while very entertaining, Quesadillas also feels very thin.
       Still, the writing, in Rosalind Harvey's translation, is very good and the whole short novel is good fun, making for a very quick, ever so slightly thought-provoking, and very entertaining read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 February 2014

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Quesadillas: Reviews: Juan Pablo Villalobos: Other books by Juan Pablo Villalobos under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in 1973.

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© 2014-2022 the complete review

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