Invasion of the Spirit People

And Other Stories have been regularly publishing Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novels since his debut, 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 with his previous novel, in (an unnamed) Barcelona; its plot is less complicated but, at its heart, lies an outlandish premise of the type we have come to expect from Villalobos.

Many of the novel’s concerns are made clear in the opening pages. “This is the story of Gaston and of his best friend, Max” the first sentence reveals, and, indeed, this is a novel of love and friendship. Gaston will be the focus of the novel as Villalobos does not shy away from admitting:

“There are lots of other characters in this story, but we’re going to accompany Gaston at all times, as if we were just floating behind him and had access to his feelings, his sensations, the flow of this thoughts.”

Of course, most writers would not feel the need to point this convention out, but in doing so Villalobos achieves two contrasting aims. He both establishes that we cannot inhabit another person’s mind – in his friendship with Max, Gaston does not always understand what his friend is thinking or feeling – while at the same demonstrating that we can do exactly that imaginatively. In a novel about shared humanity both these points are important. As the novel opens, the closure of his restaurant has left Max listless and hopeless, despite Gaston’s offer to help him out:

“Gaston knows that when Max says he’s tired he means that he’s already written off this and other options.”

Gaston has his own problems to deal with as his dog, Kitten, is dying and, despite the pain it is in, he is reluctant to have it put down. The depressing nature of his circumstances, however, do not make him despair of other people, and, in a world which is presented as divided, he walks between the divisions, developing new relationships. Even his dog’s suffering leads to a new friendship when he hires a sedatoress to ease its pain.

These divisions are frequently national or even racial, but Villalobos disorientates the reader by using abstract geographical terms for parts of the globe such as ‘Near Eastern’ and ‘Southern Cone’. The novel highlights the fear that those from elsewhere are moving in and taking over, and Gaston must resist overtures from a group who want to oust these incomers:

“It’s an invasion…and if we don’t do anything, soon it will just be budget bazaars run by Far Easterners, corner shops run by Near Easterners, and green-grocers run by North Easterners.”

Reducing identity to points on a compass removes the bias inherent in place names.

If this feels a little staid for a Villalobos’ novel, Gaston also has to cope with the arrival of Max’s father (on the run from his home country) and son (on the run from a research project in the Arctic). It is the son, Pol, who introduces the idea of alien life, proposing that life on Earth is a result of extra-terrestrial intervention:

“Directed panspermia…A colonisation carried out by an extraterrestrial civilisation which sent genetic material down to earth.”

(Intriguingly, Gaston makes a living growing non-native vegetables for restaurants – another example of alien seed – which suggests that Villalobos is more relaxed about it than Pol). If we throw in ‘the greatest footballer on earth’ suffering a crisis of confidence and Gaston’s relatives, having discovered his phone number, messaging him with complaints over his inheritance, then there is certainly plenty going on in the novel. Beneath the comedy, however, there is a warm and life-affirming message about friendship. It is no surprise that the novel’s final interaction is between Garton and a child who speaks a different language – and that this matters not at all.


4 Responses to “Invasion of the Spirit People”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    Think I’d like this Gaston seems an interesting character

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Villabolas seems like a very inventive writer, full of creative ideas on how to explore various topics. I like how you’ve homed in on the underlying theme of friendship towards the end.

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