This is my second Mexican novel in just over a month: another slim little number which you might consider gulping down in a few hours but, as with Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World, you’d be wrong. There’s a great deal to absorb in Valeria Luiselli’s ‘novel-essay’ as she calls it, even more when you get to the end and find a fascinating schematic chronology of the protagonist’s life followed by an afterword explaining the impetus behind the book which made me realise I needed to go back to the beginning and start all over again. Lest this makes it sound like a ticksy bit of literary self-indulgence I should say now that it’s a triumph: one of the most interesting pieces of fiction I’ve read in some time.
Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, aka Highway, has one aim in life: the perfect set of gnashers. Aged forty, having spent nineteen years as a security guard for the local juice factory’s art gallery, he spots an opportunity and sets himself up as an auctioneer – a teller of stories persuasive enough to make the punters buy anything, even his own teeth. After an illustrious, peripatetic career he settles back down in his home town, choosing the Calle Disneylandia in Ecatepec on which to build a home and a warehouse fit to house his lifelong collection of artefacts. All seems set for his Grand Auction until the local priest approaches him to help raise money for the parish, hit by the financial crisis that has dented Highway’s own livelihood. Nemesis in the shape of his son, not seen for decades, catches up with him but a chance meeting with a budding writer puts him back on his feet again and soon he’s dictating the ‘autobiography’ of his teeth.
You may think that all sounds a little outlandish but it’s the barest of bones when it comes to this jigsaw puzzle of a book. It’s all about storytelling. Divided into six parts, beginning with The Story then progressing through four schools of auctioneering plus one devised by Highway himself, Luiselli’s book is a rich mix of cultural and literary references, tall stories and comedy. Highway is endlessly entertaining, a man of many tales and immense confidence who auctions his lots with ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth’. The ‘allegoric’ section is rich in witty, eccentric sometimes fantastical stories and littered with references to a multitude of writers including Luiselli, herself, and the aforementioned Herrera. And there are teeth, of course, many of them: after all, they are ‘the true windows to the soul’. Translator Christina MacSweeney’s Chronologic is the brilliant finishing touch, putting Highway’s life into context and illuminating his many allusions. Teeth, here, too – who knew that Churchill’s teeth had been auctioned in 2010? They went for £15,200 apparently. No mention of the £500,000 advance paid for Martin Amis’s The Information which allegedly paid for his teeth to be fixed, though.
After all this Luiselli’s Afterword is the icing on the cake. We learn that there really is a Mexican juice factory with a gallery attached and that they commissioned what was to become The Story of My Teeth as part of an exhibition. Inspired by the nineteenth-century Cuban practice of employing a ‘tobacco reader’ who read to the workers to relieve their boredom, Luiselli arranged for her fiction to be read to the juice factory workers in instalments, incorporating their suggestions into the next episode just as Dickens did with his serialised novels. I’d love to think that it was one of the workers who came up with the idea of a man who makes Chinese fortune cookies and speaks in Latin. An extraordinary book, truly original – and I don’t say that very often.