Archive for the ‘Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Category

I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me

July 10, 2020

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.


July 6, 2016


Last July I finally read Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole, the story of a young boy’s privileged but isolated upbringing, his wealth and loneliness the result of his father’s senior position in the Mexican underworld. It quickly became one of my favourite books of the year, and it didn’t take me long to acquire a copy of Villalobos’ second novel to be translated by Rosalind Harvey, Quesadillas – though a little longer (okay, a year) to read it. Quesadillas also has a child narrator – or, at least a teenage one – Orestes (all his siblings also have Greek names) or Oreo. The novel is both a coming-of-age story, in which Oreo seeks to discover his place in the world, and a historical novel, as Villalobos recreates the Mexico of the 1980s from the ground up. Above all, though, it is a meditation on poverty.

The novel may be political satire, but it is political satire of the homelier sort, reflections on the state of the economy being measured in the quesadillas of the title:

“We were all well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home. We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listed in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.”

Oreo’s father is the political commentator of the family, but this mostly consists in throwing insults at the television. Oreo’s own political awakening occurs when he discovers he is poor. When his twin brothers go missing on a shopping expedition, this realisation overwhelms his ability to either worry or look for them:

“The only thing the search achieved was to prove to me that we were poor, really poor, because in the shop were a shitload of things we’d never bought.”

Later his mother insists they are middle class, “as if one’s socio-economic status were a mental state.” (The Greek names now look like a desperate attempt to establish that middle class identity). As Oreo is coming to realise, class has practical implications, emphasised by the arrival of wealthier neighbours. When offered Maria cookies, their son asks, “Don’t you have any Oreos?” only to receive an angry glance from his mother:

“’Hush, they’re poor,’ her whispered stare seemed to shout.”

Oreo’s brother, Aristotle, insists that the twins were kidnapped by aliens and persuades him to accompany him to a well-known extra-terrestrial hot-spot to search for them (after they have stolen provisions from their neighbours first). On the way they join a pilgrimage, but even the sight of the poorer people around them doesn’t comfort Oreo:

“…the poverty of the pilgrims all around us didn’t modify our own. At the most it left us classified as the least poor of this group of poor people, which merely proved that one could always be poorer and poorer still: being poor was a bottomless well.”

It’s on this journey that Oreo decides not to return home, surviving all the world throws at him until he meets a politician:

“I ran as if I were a stray dog fleeing from the blandishments of the town dog-catcher.”

The second half of the novel retains the same comic tone, but we begin to see the more damaging effects of poverty and, in particular, the powerlessness which results. The neighbours arrange for Oreo to spend a night in the cells to teach him a lesson, and then insist he works for the father (who inseminates cows – perhaps a metaphor for what he will do to Oreo’s family). From a middle-class perspective it may seem that Oreo is being ‘helped’, but he has lost control of his own destiny, and meanwhile his (not entirely legal) home is in danger, and not even his father’s indignation can save it.

Quesadillas is another wonderful novel from Villalobos, honest and angry about the poverty of its narrator, but as far from a misery memoir as you could imagine. Often laugh-out-loud funny, we never feel we are laughing at Oreo but laughing with him, all the way to the novel’s uproarious ending.

Down the Rabbit Hole

July 27, 2015

down the rabbit hole

Tochtli, the child narrator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, wants for nothing. Even when he decides the must-have pet is an all but extinct Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, his dreams do not exceed the possibilities of his rarefied life in the luxury hideout of his father, who is clearly something important in drugs and violence. The title’s reference to Alice in Wonderland suggests the alternate reality within which he lives with a surfeit of possessions but a lack of people (including a mother): he claims to know only thirteen or fourteen, including his father, Yolcaut, and his tutor Mazatzin.

Tochtli’s immersion in his father’s macho culture is quickly obvious:

“If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots.”

Mazatzin has influenced him in his love of Japanese culture (he calls him Usagi, Japanese for rabbit – also the meaning of Tochtli), and he is immediately attracted to the idea of the samurai. The violence of his father’s life is not hidden from him:

“There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out.”

The animals the pygmy hippos will join include a lion and two tigers, kept for more practical reasons – to dispose of the corpses.

“Sometimes macho men aren’t afraid and that’s why they’re macho. But also sometimes macho men don’t have anything and they’re still kings, because they’re macho.”

Tochtli’s anxiety surfaces in pains in his stomach which his father assuages by giving him a new hat for his collection. The hats seem to represent a series of male stereotypes, and also allow Tochtli an imaginative escape from the palace which he rarely leaves. When he is briefly acquainted with reality it disappoints:

“In any case, Miztli was really happy to show me his so called charro [a Mexican cowboy] village. Pathetic. The truth is, there were more churches than anything else in the village. There were so many churches that instead of a charro village it was a priest village.”

Tochtli’s isolation is emphasised by the rarity of direct speech. Silence is an important aspect of the novel. Tochtli claims to know three mutes, though the likelihood is that fear is keeping them quiet:

“Sometimes, when I tell them something, they look as if they want to talk and they open their mouths.”

Tochtli, however, sees silence as powerful and will later use it against his father. At one point, Yolcaut allows two other boys into the palace to play with Tochtli in an effort to get him to speak, but Tochtli cannot relate to them. He describes the Star Wars figure one of them brings as “pathetic” – “it wasn’t an original, it was a fake one from the market.”

Despite this, we retain sympathy for Tochtli, so clearly a victim of his upbringing, while at the same time we are aware that this coming-of-age novel is one in which the narrator’s maturity relates only to the world of his father. Villalobos recreates the violent scenes Tochtli sees portrayed on television in miniature in his own life, for example when, having stolen a small pistol, he shoots one of the lovebirds they keep as pets. When he does finally acquire the pygmy hippos he does so in such a way as to symbolise his acceptance of his inheritance.

Down the Rabbit Hole is a wonderful example of the child narrator: it does everything you could possibly hope for in such a slim volume. Tochtli remains a credible creation throughout, and Villalobos uses his childish enthusiasms to both illustrate the society he lives in and demonstrate the development of his character. That this is so perfectly conveyed in the novel’s voice must also be due to the excellent work of the translator, Rosalind Harvey. This is one of a number of short novels I have read recently which demonstrate that the power of literature is not measured in pages.