Quesadillas

A Novel

Juan Pablo Villalobos; Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey; Introduction by Neel Mukherjee

FSG Originals

PROFESSIONAL INSULTERS
 

‘Go and fuck your fucking mother, you bastard, fuck off!’
I know this isn’t an appropriate way to begin, but the story of me and my family is full of insults. If I’m really going to report everything that happened, I’m going to have to write down a whole load of mother-related insults. I swear there’s no other way to do it, because the story unfolded in the place where I was born and grew up, Lagos de Moreno, in Los Altos, Jalisco, a region that, to add insult to injury, is located in Mexico. Allow me to point out a few things about my town, for those of you who have never been there: 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.
‘Bastards! They’re sons of bitches! They must think we’re fucking stupid!’
The one shouting was my father, a professional insulter. He practised at all hours, but his most intense session, the one he seemed to have spent the day in training for, took place from nine to ten, dinnertime. And when the news was on. The nightly routine was an explosive mixture: quesadillas on the table and politicians on the TV.
‘Fucking robbers! Corrupt bastards!’
Can you believe that my father was a high-school teacher?
With a mouth like that?
With a mouth like that.
My mother was keeping an eye on the state of the nation from behind the griddle pan, flipping tortillas and monitoring my father’s anger levels, although she only intervened when she thought he was about to explode, whenever he chose to choke on the stream of dialectical drivel he was witnessing on the news. Only then would she go over and give him a few well-aimed thumps on the back, a move she had perfected through daily practice, until my father spat out a bit of quesadilla and lost that violet colouring he loved to terrify us all with. Nothing but a lousy ineffectual death threat.
‘What did I tell you? You need to calm down or you’ll do yourself a mischief,’ my mother scolded, predicting a life of gastric ulcers and apoplectic fits for him, as if having almost been killed by a lethal combination of processed maize and melted cheese wasn’t enough. She then tried to calm us down, exercising a mother’s right to contradiction.
‘Leave him alone. It helps him let off steam.’
We left him to suffocate and let off steam, because at that moment we were concentrating on fighting a fratricidal battle for the quesadillas, a savage struggle to affirm our own individuality while trying to avoid starving to death. On the table there were a shitload of grabbing hands, sixteen hands, with all their eighty fingers, struggling to pilfer as many tortillas as possible. My adversaries were my six brothers and sisters and my father, all of them highly qualified strategists in the survival tactics of big families.
The battle would grow vicious when my mother announced that the quesadillas were almost finished.
‘My turn!’
‘It’s mine!’
‘You’ve already eaten eighty!’
‘That’s not true.’
‘Shut your mouth!’
‘I’ve only had three.’
‘Silence! I can’t hear,’ interrupted my father, who preferred televised insults to those transmitted live.
My mother switched off the gas, left her post at the griddle pan and handed us each a tortilla. This was her view of equity: ignoring past injustices and sharing out today’s available resources equally.
The scene of these daily battles was our house, which was like a shoebox with a lid made from a sheet of asbestos. We had lived there since my parents got married; well, they had – the rest of us arrived gradually, expelled from the maternal womb one after another, one after another and finally, as if that wasn’t enough, two at a time. The family grew, but the house did not as a consequence, and so we had to push our mattresses together, pile them up in a corner, share them, so we could all fit in. Despite the years that had passed, the house looked as if it was still being built because so much of it was unfinished. The façade and the outside walls brazenly showed the brick they were made of and which should have remained hidden under a layer of cement and paint, had we respected social conventions. The floor had been prepared ready for ceramic tiles to be laid on top of it, but the procedure had never been completed. Exactly the same thing occurred with the lack of tiles in the places reserved for them in the bathroom and kitchen. It was as if our house enjoyed walking around stark naked, or at least scantily clad. Let’s not distract ourselves by going into the dodgy state of the electrics, the gas and the water; suffice it to say there were pipes and cables all over the place, and that some days we had to get water from the tank by means of a bucket tied to a rope.
All this took place over twenty-five years ago, in the 1980s, 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. Back then I thought, among other things, that all the people and the things that appeared on TV had nothing to do with us or our town, that the scenes on the screen were taking place on another plane of reality, an exciting reality that never touched and never would touch our dull existence. Until one night we had a terrifying experience when we sat down to eat our quesadillas: our town was the main item on the news. A silence so complete fell that, apart from the reporter’s voice, all you could hear was the rustle of our fingers carrying tortillas to our mouths. Even in our surprise we weren’t going to stop eating; if you think eating quesadillas in the midst of widespread astonishment is implausible, it’s because you didn’t grow up in a big family.
The TV was switching back and forth between two still images while the reporter repeated that the town hall had been occupied by rebels; the main road in the centre was blocked off with piles of rubbish – which the presenter called ‘barricades’ – and a burning tyre, with its inseparable comrade, an arriviste plume of smoke. Then I looked out of the kitchen window of our house, situated high up on the Cerro de la Chingada, and confirmed what was being said on the news. I could see four or five sinister, black, stinking clouds tarnishing the view of the illuminated parish church. The church deserves a special mention: a pink-stoned piece of shit, visible from anywhere in the town and home to the army of priests who forced us to follow their creed of misery and arrogance.
The news explained the whispered conversations between my parents, the repeated phone calls from my father’s colleagues: Professor So-and-so speaking, let me talk to your father. Professor Such-and-such speaking, put your father on. If I’d been paying attention I wouldn’t have needed to watch the news to realise what was going on … if it weren’t for the fact I was living through that period of supreme selfishness known as adolescence. Finally my father interrupted the national lynching of our local rebels by gesticulating angrily, scattering little bits of cornmeal pastry into the air.
‘What do they expect if they steal the fucking elections? They don’t want to lose? So don’t organise the damned elections and let’s all stop fucking around!’
That very same day, a little later on, a truck with a megaphone drove slowly past our house, loudly exhorting us to perform the incomprehensible civic-minded act of withdrawing from the street and staying shut up in our houses. Until further notice. If the order had been sent as far as the Cerro de la Chingada, where there were barely any houses, and each one was separated from the next by vast spiny expanses of acacia trees, it was because things were really fucked up.
My mother ran into the kitchen and came back with her eyes full of tears and a quiver in her voice.
‘Darling,’ she announced to my father, and at home this affectionate opening gambit always served as a prologue to catastrophe, ‘we only have thirty-seven tortillas 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 – listed in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony. The inflationary quesadillas were thick in order to use up the cheese that my mother had bought in a state of panic at the announcement of a new rise in the price of food and the genuine risk that her supermarket bill would go from billions to trillions of pesos. The normal quesadillas were the ones we would have eaten every day if we lived in a normal country – but if we had been living in a normal country we wouldn’t have been eating quesadillas and so we also called them impossible quesadillas. Devaluation quesadillas became less substantial for psychological rather than economic reasons – they were the quesadillas of chronic national depression – and were the most common in my parents’ house. Finally you had the poor man’s quesadillas, in which the presence of cheese was literary: you opened one up and instead of adding melted cheese my mother had written the word ‘cheese’ on the surface of the tortilla. We were yet to experience the horror of a total absence of quesadillas.
My mother, who had never voiced a political opinion in her life, came down on the government’s side and demanded that the rebels be routed and the human right to food be immediately reinstated. My father abandoned his stoicism and retorted that dignity could not be exchanged for three quesadillas.
‘Three quesadillas?’ my mother countered, despair inciting her to feminist sarcasm. ‘It’s so obvious you do nothing around here! This family gets through at least fifty quesadillas a day.’
Still more confusingly, my father insisted that the rebels were a bunch of idiots, even though he defended them. It would be ungrateful not to, since it had been they, during one of their sporadic periods in government more than ten years ago, who had brought electricity and phone lines to the hill we lived on.
Basically, all the rebels did was shout ‘Long live Christ the king!’ and pray for time to go back to the beginning of the twentieth century.
‘These poor people want to die and they don’t know how. They’re trying to die of hunger but it takes ages – that’s why they like war so much,’ said my father by way of explaining to us that the rebels would not negotiate, would not accept any agreement with the government.
We called them ‘the Little Red Rooster’s men’, in part because their party logo was a red rooster, but mainly because they – like most political parties – were given to referring to themselves by unpronounceable acronyms. As there was no other party with a blue or yellow rooster, which would have created a source of ambiguity demanding the use of the adjective, a lot of the time linguistic economy – that is, laziness – led us to call them simply ‘the Little Rooster’s men’. They were cooperative farmers, small-scale ranchers and schoolteachers, always accompanied by a loyal circle of devout women of diverse origin. They called themselves synarchists and their mission was to repeat the defeats of their grandfathers and their fathers, who had waged war way back in the 1920s, when the government decided that the things in heaven belonged to heaven and the things on Earth belonged to the government.
Faced with this exciting scene, my siblings and I – semi-rational beings who ranged in age from fifteen (Aristotle, the eldest) to five (the pretend twins), meticulously separated from each other by two-year periods that suggested a disturbing sexual custom of my parents – set to acting out fist fights between the rebels and the government. I headed up the rebels, because Aristotle refused to be anything except the government – the forces of order, as he put it. The government always won in our battles, because Aristotle was already applying his fascist methodology, which combined using excessive force with buying off his opponents. As if that weren’t enough, he always had in his army the pretend twins, who didn’t bat an eyelid at anything; didn’t speak, didn’t move, didn’t blink. They liked to act as if they were two plants and, generally speaking, it’s impossible to force plants to surrender. They were a couple of ferns in their pots: we knew it was enough to reach out a hand and apply the minimum amount of force to hurt them, but we didn’t do it, ever, because we had the impression that the ferns wouldn’t hurt a fly.
I tried to wade in with my rhetorical skills, but was condemned to failure because no one understood me.
‘Fellow countrymen, there is still time to step back from the profound abyss, still time to return to the path of good and leave to our children that most precious inheritance: liberty, their inalienable rights and their well-being. You are still able to bequeath them an honourable name that they will remember proudly, merely by being addicted to revolution and not to tyranny…’ I exhorted my men, until Aristotle grew bored and curtailed my speech by thumping me.
It meant nothing that I’d won poetry contests at school for six consecutive years, improvising oratory pieces and reciting poems: my own, other people’s and anonymous ones. Sometimes the anonymous poems were properly anonymous, sometimes they were my own anonymous efforts and sometimes those of my father, who had – by a long stretch – a greater talent for vulgarity than he had for metaphor. The poems’ authorship was determined by the level of embarrassment they caused me as I read them.
From our strategic position high up on the Cerro de la Chingada, we could hear random detonations and shootouts, and glimpse new plumes of smoke. From the phone calls my parents made to my uncles and aunts, who lived in the centre like normal people, not right in the middle of the shit, we knew it was pointless to risk leaving the house, since all the shops were shut. According to my father, the families who lived in the centre had regressed to walking on all fours and were crawling around in their houses, eating lying down and sleeping under their beds. Such a display of circus skills served only to avoid the stray bullets, a waste of talent and energy, considering that without exception we were all going to die one day anyway.
Despite the precariousness and the risk of starvation we experienced in those days, they were a relief for my father, who was finally able to justify his hermit-like decision to build our house on the edge of town – but on top of a hill? You’ve got to be kidding! He went around saying that while people were praying for their lives in the centre, we were safe, nothing was going to happen to us, which led me to consider the possibility that we’d end up being the only survivors, with the subsequent responsibility of having to repopulate the highlands – my imagination was conditioned by the teachings of the Old Testament.
Two days after the conflict began, the nine o’clock news found us in the distressing situation of one poor man’s quesadilla per head.
‘Just like in Cuba,’ my mother kept saying.
‘They don’t have quesadillas in Cuba,’ my father replied.
‘Well, that’s their loss, the poor things,’ my mother concluded, and turned to stare out of the kitchen window, wishing someone would just bomb the damned town hall once and for all.
My mother’s wish for genocide was not going to be granted, although it almost was: the newsreader informed us that at that very moment a shitload of anti-riot vans were arriving in Lagos to reinstate democracy. As if by a stupid cosmic connection, at that very moment we heard a distant rumble and rushed over to the living-room window, which provided a better view of the town’s events, veiled, it must be said, by a discreet curtain. We drew the curtain back so as to get a good view and were able to witness a ramshackle procession of trucks down below, on the road that came out in the centre.
‘That’s right! Fuck them up! That’ll obviously solve the problem, as if they were rabid dogs – bastards! Sons of bitches!’ my father rebuked them, while my mother tugged at his arm to bring him back into the decency of silence, just in case the police had superpowers and managed to overhear him.
We were awake until very late, because the light and sound show was really something. My father finally resigned himself to silence and sadness. His only activity was to ruffle the hair of each of us in turn, but instead of calming us down he upset us, because he was concentrating so hard on being affectionate that it seemed as if the end of the world was approaching.
‘What was that?’
‘Gunfire,’ replied my father, never one to attempt to sweeten reality.
‘Are they going to kill them, Daddy?’
‘No, it’s just to scare them,’ my mother quickly intervened, knowing what my father would have said: That’s what the police are for, killing people, or something along those lines.
‘And what are they going to do to the rebels?’
‘They’ll put them in jail and they’ll…’
‘Then they’ll let them go, when they say sorry for the bad things they did.’
‘No, no, no! They haven’t done anything wrong. The elections were stolen from them. They have a right to protest.’
‘The children don’t understand that.’
‘The children are old enough to tell right from wrong.’
‘You’ll confuse them.’
‘Better confused than deceived.’
In the early hours of the morning, when the city too returned to silence, my mother, flaunting her military knowledge, started making devaluation quesadillas with the last of our reserves.
‘We’re going shopping first thing tomorrow,’ she said to my father, who refused to eat the quesadilla and a half he was due and out of which we got seven little pieces.
We rose very early to go panic-buying. We’d slept so little that the crust in our eyes hadn’t even had time to develop. We drove down to the centre of town in my parents’ pickup truck, my siblings and I lying in the back, wrapped in blankets and trying to play cards to pass the time, although the wheels sliding around on the uneven dirt road made the car jolt so much that all our cards kept getting jumbled as we played. In town we stared at the scorched car tyres, the heaps of rubbish piled up at the side of the road, a few anti-riot police swapping stories, and the walls where the rebels had painted their lonely slogan: Justice for Lagos. It looked as if the synarchists had bought up all the supplies of spray paint in the town. The government held the rebels and the threat they posed in such low regard they never bothered to repaint the walls. You can still read that slogan here and there today, on dirty, flaking walls whose owners sympathise with the cause or simply don’t have the money to repaint.
‘Which ones are the rebels?’ I asked.
‘Didn’t you understand what Dad said? Those arseholes are fucked already,’ said Aristotle self-righteously.
My father was trying really hard not to crash the truck, an almost impossible task because, as well as the legions of furious drivers, the streets were rammed with kamikaze milk trucks. The cattle ranches near the town hadn’t been able to distribute their quotas in the last few days and now they needed to get rid of all the semi-rancid milk. Never underestimate the size of our dairy herds: it was a shitload of milk. There are very few milk trucks around these days, since the town’s industrial estate opened in the 1990s, with its big dairy companies who consume tons of milk and save farmers the hassle of looking for retailers. Most people buy their milk in the supermarket nowadays and many of them even choose to consume dairy products from the major milk-producing region of Comarca Lagunera, betraying our own cows.
In the state-owned ISSSTE shop, there was an apocalypse taking place. Never-ending queues of haggard, badly dressed beings surged towards the opening doors, as if instead of buying supplies they wanted to be crushed to death and put an end to so much senseless damned suffering once and for all. We split into two units: four of my siblings went with my father to the tortilla bakery and the rest of us, the pretend twins and I, stayed to accompany my mother on her suicide mission. The division obeyed a logic imposed in principle by our age, but in effect mainly by the distinction between hysterical and melancholy personalities: Aristotle with my father, as he was the eldest and the most hysterical and violent, so my father could control him better; me, the second eldest at thirteen, with my mother, for being the second and the saddest, and also because my survival strategies were verbal, which meant (at most) potential psychological damage for my victims – a matter of little importance when we left the house and the aim was to avoid massive loss of life, our own or other people’s; Archilochus, Callimachus and Electra went with my father, for being at ages that carried high risks of vandalism and self-inflicted injury – eleven, nine and seven respectively; the pretend twins, together, with my mother and under my supervision, which they didn’t need because they were five years old and absent from the world the whole time, concentrating on photosynthesising and concerned only with staying next to each other, as if they were Siamese rather than pretend twins.
My mother wasn’t afraid of crowds: they were her natural habitat. She herself had grown up in a large family, a genuine one, like they used to be, with eleven legally acknowledged brothers and sisters, plus three more who materialised when my grandfather died to claim their microscopic portion of the estate. She was a specialist in multitudes, capable of pushing in so as to be third in line at the deli when there were hundreds of people yelling at the pig slaughterer. I guarded the trolley into which my mother was gleefully throwing cheese, ham and mortadella. My mother’s skill at getting them to cut her the most ethereal slices ever had to be seen to be believed: thinner, thinner, she ordered the assistant menacingly. When we’d finished our cold-meat purchases, we confirmed that for every measly little victory in this life you get a real bastard of a disaster: the pretend twins had disappeared.
The search grew incredibly complicated due to the pretend twins’ appearance. We had to explain what they looked like to the police and the staff of the ISSSTE shop, and my mother insisted on starting off her description in an irresistibly polemical fashion.
‘They’re twins, but they don’t look the same. They’re nothing like each other.’
‘If they don’t look the same, then they’re not twins,’ they objected, ignorantly deducing that our entire story was a lie, as if we enjoyed playing hide-and-seek with non-existent family members.
I tried to put a stop to the investigators’ attempts to uphold the iron defence of Aristotelian logic before starting to look for the twins, completing my mother’s explanation with the help of an attack of nervous hiccups, the aim of which was to fracture my breastbone.
‘They are twins, but they’re just not real ones.’
‘Not real? So they’re invented?’ replied a bold officer who seemed to have decided it would be simpler to expose our falsehoods than to find the twins.
‘They’re biovular twins, dizygotic twins!’ my mother shouted, tearing at her hair, fully involved with the tragedy now, given that the situation had ended up in ancient Greece.
The officer took me aside, stared at me with immense pity and, stroking my back like a little dog, asked me, ‘Is your mum crazy?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, because I wasn’t absolutely sure. I’d never really had to consider it.
Since there still wasn’t enough excitement, we added the issue of the twins’ indistinguishable apparel, because it really was difficult to tell us all apart. I don’t just mean for other people; even we found it hard. My parents contributed to the standardisation with their approach to economies of scale: they bought us all the same clothes so that they could haggle the price down, jeans and coloured T-shirts, always the same clothes, one size too big so they’d last longer, which had the hideous effect of making us all look permanently badly dressed. When the clothes were new they looked as if we’d borrowed them from someone else and by the time they fitted us perfectly they were worn out. And that’s without taking into account that the rags were passed down from old to young by means of a synchronised system of inheritance.
Luckily my father turned up and the arguments stopped, although some employees continued to throw us suspicious glances that betrayed some highly serious ontological aspersions. We scoured every corner of the shop, combed the surrounding streets and didn’t find the pretend twins. The only thing the search achieved was to prove to me that we were poor, really poor, because in the shop there were a shitload of things we’d never bought.
Mamá, are we ever going to stop being poor?’ I asked, looking up at her as the tears dripped from her chin and landed in my hair. I made use of them to give my hair a brush, smoothing down a few stray tufts.
‘Your little brothers have gone missing! This is not the time to ask that question!’
To me, however, the two things were equally important: finding the pretend twins and ascertaining our family’s hopes for socio-economic advancement.
Two policemen accompanied us home to collect the twins’ birth certificates and some photographs of them taken a few days ago at school. The officer who had questioned me about my mother’s mental health turned out to be the local police chief, despite his lack of tact – or because of it, most probably. He looked carefully at the photos and his suspicions were confirmed.
‘I knew it. They’re not twins.’
He had a great deal of hair on his head, different kinds of hair: straight, frizzy, wavy, curly; there were even several degrees of curls. You had the impression that up there, among such capillary chaos, his ideas were getting tangled up. He tried to introduce himself with a surname – like this: Officer Surname – but it was one of those surnames that millions of people have, really hard to tell apart. We needed anything that would save us from the panic we felt at that moment, and among the possibilities that presented themselves we found nothing better than a childish joke, which helped us to believe that what was happening wasn’t so serious after all, that it would be sorted out, that we were allowed to laugh in the midst of such distress. And so we nicknamed him Officer Mophead.
The stellar strategy of the police consisted of plastering every wall in town with posters showing a photo of the twins. Underneath the photo screamed the word ‘MISSING’ in capital letters. Immediately below, the details were given in lower case: the names of my MISSING brothers, Castor and Pollux, the run-of-the-mill names of my parents (my grandparents hadn’t had the imagination to screw them up), the telephone number of the police and our home number. At the very bottom it said: ‘THINK THEY ARE TWINS’. We didn’t even offer a reward; we’d decided to take advantage of our new-found fame to broadcast our poverty, and my father’s Greek delusions, to all and sundry.
The days went by and we didn’t find them. At first we looked for them eagerly; it was the only thing we did. My father didn’t go to work, and as soon as we got back from school all we did was worry. Meanwhile, Aristotle concentrated wholeheartedly on another essential task: blaming me.
‘It’s your fault, arsehole,’ he would repeat, and my remaining siblings delighted in imitating him.
I was able to ignore them without anxiety because I was an expert in matters of guilt. It was in order to weather situations like this that it had fallen to me to live in this town, be born into this family and go to a school where they specialised in doling out sins to us. I used my rhetorical skills to formulate an irrefutable defence: ‘No one goes missing unless they want to.’
This reply made a profound impression on my siblings, as it did on me, because deep down – where the words made their impression – we all admitted that we’d love to be in the pretend twins’ place, to go missing, to leave this lousy house and the damn Cerro de la Chingada behind once and for all.
Our sadness peaked one night when they interviewed Officer Mophead on the nine o’clock news. From what we could see on the screen, the make-up department had worked hard at trying to shape his hair into some sort of style. The result was alarming.
‘What’s happening to Officer Mophead’s mop?’ asked Electra, cementing for good the nickname we’d assigned him.
After carrying out the obligatory tasks of describing the twins’ physical features and giving their names – which led to a brief digression into Graeco-Roman mythology – the presenter and his interviewee agreed to prolong the evening’s programme and fulfil their lifelong ambition of starring in the ten o’clock telenovela. Judging by the exceptionally high standard of hyperbole they were coming out with, they’d been born to do melodrama or, if their talents were not innate, at least the country had prepared them thoroughly.
‘So tell me, how are the parents?’ asked the presenter, contemptuously putting to one side the notes he had been tidying on his desk, making his intentions clear: right, let’s stop this fannying around and talk about what really matters.
‘They’re totally devastated, as you can imagine. Dev-as-tat-ed.’ He pronounced the word syllable by syllable, with repeated shakes of the strange form on top of his head.
‘Understandably – it must be hard to get over something like this.’ The presenter gave Officer Mophead a hideously pitying look, as if he were talking to the pretend twins’ father, although perhaps it was a ‘genuine moment’ and what happened was that the policeman’s hair suddenly seemed worthy of sympathy to him.
‘No one gets over this, no one,’ replied Officer Mophead in a fatalistic tone, shaking off his sadness because it wasn’t worth it. Why bother, if everything was hopeless, like his hair?
‘It’s true, no one gets over this,’ concluded the presenter, picking up his notes again to return to other news without a solution, such as the national economy.
I looked at my parents and it was like the time when I looked out of the kitchen window and saw the columns of smoke that were also on the TV, except that now, instead of smoke, what I saw on their faces was the shadow – the threat – of everlasting unhappiness.
As the weeks went by we grew used to disappointment; our despair was gradually tempered and started flirting timidly with resignation, until one day the two of them went to bed and the next morning only the second one woke up, the little slut, the one the priests had been trying to instil in us since the beginning of time.
Another big relief was finally to be able to ascribe a motive to my mother’s recurring weeping sessions. It was something she used to do before, especially over the washing-up, and whenever we had asked her what was wrong she’d always replied that it was nothing. What did she mean ‘nothing’? In that case why was she crying? We stopped asking her, took a break from our worrying, as now we knew she was crying for her missing children, for having bartered her place in the queue at the meat counter for the pretend twins.
Something similar happened with my father’s nervous exhaustion. Mercifully he now had a way to channel his insults, to translate national disaster into family disgrace, and condemn all politicians – regardless of rank or responsibility – for patently wallowing in their ineptitude at finding my little brothers. What he’d lost in professionalism and objectivity he had gained in poetic intensity. When Officer Mophead announced they were going to close the case, my father reached for a phrase that expressed perfectly the misfortunes of fate: ‘Life was just waiting to serve me up an arsehole like him.’
As if all these advantages weren’t enough, which I’m not ashamed to admit, my siblings and I had awoken to a new and most convenient reality: we now got more quesadillas apiece in the nightly allocation. An unhealthy age dawned in which the truly significant difference was that I started noticing some things in my life for the first time. Up until then, the excess of stimuli had taught me distraction, generalisation, the need to act extremely quickly when I had the chance, before someone beat me to it. I hadn’t had time to stop and notice details, analyse characteristics or personalities, because things were always happening: fights, shouts, complaints, accusations, games with incomprehensible rules (to make sure that Aristotle won); a glass of milk would be knocked over, someone would break a plate, someone else would bring a snake they’d caught out on the hillside into the house. Chaos imposed its law and provided tangible proof that the universe was expanding, slowly falling apart and blurring the edges of reality.
Now things were changing; we’d abandoned our status as an indiscriminate horde and moved from the category of multitudinous rabble to that of modest rabble. I had only four brothers and sisters left, and now I was able to look at them carefully, notice that two were very like my mother, that Aristotle had a pair of enormous ears that explained all his nicknames, that Archilochus and Callimachus were the same height despite being different ages; I even learned to tell us all apart by the stains on our teeth, assiduously imparted by the town’s fluoridated water. And, what’s more, we suddenly had a little sister who was making her damp debut aged seven by regressing to nightly bed-wetting.
I took advantage of things getting back to normal to start up my sociological research once again.
‘Is it possible to stop being poor, Mamá?’
‘We’re not poor, Oreo, we’re middle class,’ replied my mother, as if one’s socio-economic status were a mental state.
But all this about being middle class was like the normal quesadillas, something that could only exist in a normal country, a country where people weren’t constantly trying to screw you over. Anything normal was damned hard to obtain. At school they specialised in organising mass exterminations of any remotely eccentric student so as to turn us into normal people. Indeed, all the teachers and the priests complained constantly: why the hell couldn’t we act like normal people? The problem was that if we’d paid attention, if we’d followed the interpretations of their teachings to the letter, we would have ended up doing the opposite, nothing but sheer bonkers bullshit. We did what we could, what our randy bodies demanded of us, and we always pretended to ask for forgiveness, because they made us go to confession on the first Friday of every month.
To avoid confessing the number of times I jerked off every day, I tried to distract the priest who heard my confession.
‘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. Our economic advances caused by the twins’ disappearance led me to start fantasising about slimming down the family still more so as to leave poverty behind altogether. How much better off would we be if another one of my siblings went missing? What would happen if two or three of them disappeared?
Would we be rich?
Or middle class, at least?
It all depended on the flexibility of the family economy.

 
Copyright © 2012 by Juan Pablo Villalobos
Translation copyright © 2013 by Rosalind Harvey
Introduction copyright © 2013 by Neel Mukherjee