Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (If We Were to Live in a Normal Place) by Juan Pablo Villalobos – A Review

Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (If We Were to Live in a Normal Place) (English title: Quesadillas)
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Aanagrama, 2012, 188 pg

 Si viviéramos en un lugar normal is the second offering from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ in his loose trilogy the failures of Mexico. Villalobos isn’t interested in heavy and overwrought  realism that all the problems Mexico faces might inspire. Instead,  Si viviéramos is a black comedy often dry, but always making fun of the politicians and well to do that control Mexico’s politics. At the same time, the futile gestures of those who disagree are also a source of humor. It is a humor that paints a Mexico that is neither functioning nor magical, but questions all the tropes of Mexican society.

Orestes, Oreo for short, is one of 8 children who live in a small home on the outside of a small town during the 80’s when Mexico had severe financial problems. His father is a teacher at a preparatory school whose big passion is to shout at the TV during the news programs calling all the politicians that appear corrupt. Orestes spends much of his time wondering why they are so poor. Their home is outside of town and made of the cheapest materials and they have very little. In a theme Orestes returns to over and over, they eat quesadillas of varying quality depending on how much money the family has and how bad inflation is. The family even has a whole cheese rating scale depending on the type of cheese they can afford. The town is a hopeless place with long lines for food, an ineffectual police department, and an occasional rebellion that is so badly run and easily put down that years later the symbols of the rebels are still painted on walls because no one cares.

Against that back drop Orestes has a series of adventures that show how dysfunctional everything is. When the family gets new neighbors, rich Poles who build a giant house next door, Orestes is both awed by their immense wealth and his firs taste of Oreos, resentful that his parents haven’t done anything to remedy the situation, and completely unsure how he should behave. Yet the voice is immature, lashing out at anyone that has kept him from getting money. He has an innocence that runs up against its own powerlessness and can only resort to saying everything is fucked up.

Villalobos throws a wide attack and makes fun of religion and the culture of religious peregrination. At one point Orestes runs away from home to go to the hill where his older brother says space aliens have landed before and kidnapped their younger bothers. They march out their with a group of religious pilgrims to a shrine. Its an obvious substitution of one deus ex machina for another. It also smashes any fantasy of magical realism the reader might have. In Si viviéramo there is nothing romantic, just one absurd disappointment after another. The idea of family does not fare well either. The brothers always fight, the grandfather refuses to help at a critical moment, and when his twin brothers disappear Orestes is so nonplussed, it is hard to believe he has brothers.

Those disappointments are not only thrust on the characters from the out side, but withing, as if even given a chance to succeed, Mexico will screw it up. Towards the end of the novel the Polish family suggest Orestes’ father sell their home so a new housing development can be built. It would be the payout Orestes has been waiting for, but his father refuses. It is a futile gesture, because the government just moves in and destroys the house (it was not his land to begin with) and they are homeless and broke. If it was bad enough that political power is against them, when offered a chance to profit the family refuses. Yet they are unable to make a sensible response. There is no way out for the family, because they are unable to find a way out. They are so used to the situation they just accept it.

Those disappointments, though, can make the novel feel episodic, which might be a better way to structure realistic novel since lives are just a series of episodes. However, when it comes to concluding it all the little episodes don’t tie together. It is not necessary that everything come together, but the episodes don’t really go anywhere. It’s as if Villalobos got to a certain point and said to himself, I need to finish this. He does it in his dryly comedic fashion as a UFO comes to reunite the family. It is a ridiculous conclusion, but one that is no more ridiculous than a work of magical realism. The difference is Si viviéramos treats Mexico in less exotic terms. It is a reality informed by the then and now, the fallow pop culture of Omni magazine and cowboy movies. When looked at as a whole, the conclusion makes sense, but during the reading, working your way through each episode, knowing that the pages are running out and the episodes just keep plying on, the conclusion is a sudden stop. Had he been able to take the novel father somehow, to go beyond the comedy that feels superficial at times, he could have really written something interesting. As it is, the book feels a little light. Perhaps taken together with this first book and the as yet unwritten third, it will all make sense.

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