As part of ChacaLit, the literary component of the Chacala Cultural Foundation, we decided to include a community book club book. Normally, the idea is to choose a book to be discussed across one community at various existing book clubs and exchange experiences. In Chacala, there were no book clubs at that time but it was not hard to form both a Spanish speaking and an English speaking one. For the first ChacaLit season, we chose Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (literally, "If we lived in a normal place") by Juan Pablo Villalobos, available in English translation under the title Quesadillas. What follows is a brief account of our first Chacala Community Book Club Book.
Chacala is a rural place and, like the town in the novel, it is not a normal place. We are approximately 100km from the nearest bookstore and our local libraries are quite archaic. To define the ‘community’ of the Community Book Club, I mean anyone who spends a considerable amount of time in Chacala - this would include people who live here, work here, vacation regularly, live part time, or have family here regardless of nationality. The ChacaLit committee bought 5 hard copies of the book in Spanish from Ghandi bookstore in Guadalajara; others downloaded it to an eReader. It was on a Gandhi bookmark we found extra encouragement for our ideas to boost reading with this quote: ‘In Mexico, people read half a book per year. Get together with someone and read a whole one.’ (see photo posted to social media by Aidé Partida).
It was a stroke of genius (or perhaps luck) to have chosen Quesadillas. I could never have predicted what rich material there was for discussion in this short Mexican semi-absurdist novel. What made it so fruitful was that it provoked a variety of strong reactions in our readers by bringing up so many themes relevant in modern Mexico, not only through its subject-matter (for example, living in poverty, a lack of social justice, child abduction, political calamity and so on) but also through its writing style (irreverent, cartoonish and almost completely lacking in closure or continuity.)
In all, about 30 members of our wider community (not bad considering our official population is under 400) read the book, either in Spanish or English. To begin with, I was surprised by the reticence of the foreign population: ‘I already have enough to read’ or ‘Book clubs are just an excuse to get together and drink wine’ were among the un-enthused reactions I received to the idea. On the other hand, the non-Mexicans that did read the book were highly enthusiastic in discussing it and 11 people (plus me) attended the English language group.
When I approached Spanish speakers with Villalobos’ book in my outstretched hand and said: ‘Would you like to read this and get together with a group to discuss it afterwards?’, the reaction I got was broadly of unbridled enthusiasm and gratitude. Admittedly, I chose my targets well and of course, some people could just not make the time to read it, but it was very heartening to see how this simple idea could do so much to support avid readers, to encourage reticent readers and to bring readers together. And that is all before discussing the actual book!
What did people think about the book? Well, let’s start with the negative. Some Mexicans believed that the author was totally out of touch with Mexican society (although he was born and raised in Jalisco, the Mexican state where the book is set, he does live in Barcelona now) and that he brought out only stereotypical aspects of Mexico in order to sell books and paint a picture for a foreign audience. It is possible that his publisher, who must have chosen to translate the multi-layered title Si viviéramos en un lugar normal as simply Quesadillas might have been approving of easy-to-digest Mexican folklore. For example, there was almost unanimity over the fact that the protagonist’s family would not have eaten as many quesadillas as the author describes because it is not a typical staple for a poor Mexican family. It would have been more appropriate to talk of bean tacos. This matter was taken very seriously.
As far as the non-Mexicans were concerned, their criticisms included the book being ‘confusing’, ‘frustrating’ or ‘depressing’, which in a way, as a resident foreigner here, I would say meant that the author had actually given the reader the exact emotional experience of living in Mexico, which at its worst is confusing, frustrating and depressing. A stand-out point of controversy in the book for both demographics was (spoiler alert) the abduction of the protagonist's twin brothers. Some hated the lack of closure of never really knowing what happened to them; some thought it was bad writing on the part of the author for leaving that thread loose; some thought that similar injustices went on all the time in real life; and others found it impossible to believe that the family just carried on with life after their failed attempt to get the twins back.
On the positive side, there were those who enjoyed it precisely because they felt it represented exactly that truth-stranger-than-fiction side to everyday life in Mexico, where there really can be ‘more cows than people and more priests than cows’ in a town, or where tragedy can happen and life still carries on, where you can be a professional and consider yourself middle-class but still not have quite enough food to feed your children. Some fans in the groups called it ‘an ambitious parody’, ‘a mini-odyssey written for writers’ and others said ‘there was a laugh on every page’ or that they had enjoyed how the prose juxtaposed absurdity with stirring fundamental truths that really made you think and make you re-read certain paragraphs.
Quesadillas is not for the fainthearted but it seems to me that building discussions around books can be incredibly heartening. I look forward to choosing the next community book club book and all of the surprises it will bring. We now have a seasonal ongoing English language book club and a Spanish speaking group that has already read four more books together in the few months since ChacaLit. I am grateful to all those who took part and intend to lend the 5 hard copies out to book clubs in other local towns.
Review of Quesadillas in the Guardian : click here.