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Valeria Luiselli: La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth)

Our narrator/hero is called Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, though he is called Highway by most people. He was born in Pachuca. As the title tells us, teeth are something of an obsession with him. He was born with four premature teeth. His mother was a cleaner while his father did nothing. Both are long since dead. As regards his teeth, his milk teeth fell out and were replaced by teeth that pointed in different directions.

Gustavo had various jobs as a child but, when he was twenty-one, he became a security guard. He worked for a company that made juice, with the profits from the juice company going to create a large art collection, though he did not get to see the art collection. His life changed when he was forty. A staff member had a panic attack and it was Gustavo who comforted him. His boss was so impressed that he was promoted to the role of Personnel Crisis Supervisor, comforting staff members who needed comforting. To help him do the job, he was sent on various courses. One of these courses, given by the manager’s son, was Contact-Improv Dance. His dance partner was Flaca. One thing led to another and they ended up married. As she was quite well off and had ambitions for him, he tried to become an actor or dancer. It did not work out. A son was born – Siddhartha Sánchez Tostado.

Gustavo learned that his successor as security guard had become an auctioneer and had done very well at it. Gustavo decides to try his hand at it. He signs up for a course, given by a Japanese man. He had recently read of a man who had been able to afford to have his teeth fixed by writing a best-selling novel. (Though not mentioned by name, I suspect that this might refer to Martin Amis). He is determined to do well at auctioneering so that he can have his teeth fixed. He did so well on the course that he gets a grant to go on a six month course in Missouri. The Japanese course had taught him various methods of auctioneering, all of which are in the realm of the post-modern rather than conventional reality. However, he now develops his own method – the allegoric method.

On return, he takes up the career and does well, enabling him to leave Flaca, whom he never sees again. He does so well that he becomes a huge success and buys land. After an auction in Miami, he is even able to buy Marilyn Monroe’s teeth, which he has transplanted into his own mouth.

To this point, the novel seems fairly conventional, though with a few flights of fancy, but, at this point, it veers into the post-modern. Gustavo makes his living by selling not only the goods he is selling but by selling the stories that go with the items. For example, when he is selling teeth to rich people in a care home, he manages to sell a tooth that had been Plato’s and one that been Saint Augustine’s, telling stories about the individuals and their teeth. Many of the characters in the book are named after famous writers, mostly but by no means all Latin American writers, some of whom are still living. Indeed, the names of the characters in this book offer a good guide to contemporary Latin American literature.

Things get even more complicated when his by now adult son (whom he had not seen since he was a young child) turns up at one of the auctions. At the auction where he sells the teeth he sells his own teeth and himself with them. He is bought by his son and ends up losing his teeth and being chased by fearsome clowns. When he hires a young man called Voragine (possibly named after José Eustasio Rivera’s The Vortex or, perhaps, Jacobus de Voragine), part of whose job is to transcribe his stories, we learn that much of what he has been telling us may well be fanciful.

If you like the post-modern approach, which I very much do, you will find this novel very witty, gloriously inconsistent, contradictory, absurd and quirky. Just to add to the fun, in the English version, the translator, Christina MacSweeney, has added a witty chronology, which includes major world events, events that happen in this novel, items relating to teeth and odd items, a few of which recall the McSweeneys website, though there is presumably no connection between MacSweeney and McSweeney’s.

The Mexican novel has definitely embraced post-modernism and this novel is just one of the many examples of that and a first-class example it is. It is thoroughly entertaining and highly original and we must be grateful for Coffee House Press for making it available in English.

Publishing history

First published by Sexto Piso in 2013
First English translation by Coffee House Press in 2015
Translated by Christina MacSweeney