I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me

I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos’ fourth novel, all of which have now been issued in the UK by And Other Stories. On this occasion there is a change of translator as Rosalind Harvey makes way for Daniel Hahn, who handles the various voices in the narrative with great skill. Villalobos novels typically mix humour with social commentary: Down the Rabbit Hole is written from the perspective of the child of a drug lord; Quesadillas is a coming of age story which also examines the effects of poverty; I’ll Sell You a Dog is the story of a man who gave up his dream of being an artist to sell tacos. This latest novel returns to the organised crime of Down the Rabbit Hole: packed with petty criminals and gangsters, and with its fair share of violence, it also finds the time to indulge in literary theory.

The main character is Juan Pablo, a Mexican writer, with the very question of how much of the narrative is true and how much has been embellished to create a novel central to the plot. Juan is leaving for Barcelona, with his girlfriend Valentina, to begin his PhD (“It’s about the limits of humour in Latin American literature in the 20th century”) when his cousin tells him that he has “a very, very, total, gold-plated motherfucker of a plan.” It quickly becomes apparent that the cousin’s plan involves a criminal element:

“My naiveté in business matters was so great that I didn’t know investor meetings were held in the basements of lap-dancing clubs and with one partner tied to a chair…”

By the end of the meeting the cousin is dead and Juan is embroiled in a plan of which he knows very little, so much so that he immediately breaks up with Valentina to protect her, only to be told that she has to go with him:

“If you want to protect her what you need to do right now is convince her to get on that plane.”

Juan’s task when in Barcelona is to befriend the daughter of a rich Catalan businessman, Laia, who is a student at the same university:

“What we need is to get into Laia’s inner circle, and the quickest and simplest way to do that is through sex.”

Valentina is needed as all Laia’s previous relationships have been with women, but, understandably she is barely talking to Juan (or he to her). Luckily the reader has an insight into her life, which soon takes her different direction to Juan’s, as the novel also includes sections of her diary. (Other texts included are letters from the cousin, one written in case of his death, and letters from Juan’s mother, with such ironic statements as, “And to see you now! With a European girlfriend!”). She further complicates matters when she becomes friendly with an Italian beggar, Jimmy, whose attempts to scare Juan for abandoning her lead his associates to believe that the mafia are attempting to muscle in on their job.

The elements of farce which surround the criminals’ scheme is made more amusing by Juan/Villalobos’ self-referential literary asides. In reference to his continual confusion, Juan says:

“I’m normally a fan of stories that start in media res… but to tell the truth, when you’re talking about real life, I’d honestly rather have things explained to me properly, starting at the beginning.”

When, having befriended Laia, Juan is told “now you bang her” he comments:

“…If he’d asked me to kill her, or kidnap her, or to torture her, or to extort her, or to blackmail her, say, that would have more diegetic coherence, bearing in mind what had come before.”

Villalobos also uses this idea more seriously, questioning the nature of comedy in his comedic novel – in effect, asking the reader why they are laughing:

“Baudelaire said that laughter was satanic because it arises from the idea of its own superiority.”

This is perhaps most evident in a scene that begins, “There’s a Mexican, a Chinaman and a Muslim…” When another man is brought in, Juan realises, “there’s no way he’s getting out of this joke alive.”

The novel also has a number of running jokes, including variations on the title, as different characters realise they are unlikely to be believed. When Valentina shows Juan’ autobiographical novel to as policewoman she says “it’s too twisted, too implausible.” Her own diary she describes as having “so much plot it’s started looking like a novel.” Another running joke is Juan’s skin disease which almost every other character comments on at one time or another, most suggesting it is “dermatitis nervosa,” something Juan is at pains to deny.

The novel, then, can be very funny, though at almost three hundred pages it’s much longer than anything Villalobos has written before, and I was beginning to feel its cast of eccentrics had outstayed their welcome by the final third. Having said this, everything is redeemed by an ending that is both clever and poignant, and occurs just at the point you cannot see how Villalobos might end it. This is novel which is much more sophisticated than its often rough language and farcical humour might suggest, and demonstrates again Villalobos’ talent for exposing the flaws and hypocrisies of our time.

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5 Responses to “I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds fun, and quite meta in places!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds like a riot (and I mean that in the best possible sense)! Your description of it reminds me a little of some Andrey Kurkov’s novels, albeit with more verve and zip.

  3. Invasion of the Spirit People | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Down the Rabbit Hole, in 2011, in almost every case translated by Rosalind Harvey (the exception is I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me which was translated by Daniel Hahn). The latest of these is Invasion of the Spirit People set, as […]

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