Juan Pablo Villalobos: No voy a pedirle a nadie que me crea (I Don’t Expect Anyone To Believe Me)
Our hero, called Juan Pablo Villalobos, is a university student and he is writing a thesis on the limits of humour in Latin American literature of the twentieth century. Latin American literature of the twentieth century, at least what I know of it, does not generally feature humour as one of its strong points. Villalobos (the character in this novel, not the author) states that the reason for this is political correctness and Christian morality, working as repressive forces that imbue laughter… with feelings of guilt. I would have thought that the very serious subjects Latin American authors deal with in their books would be a key factor.
I follow Villalobos on Twitter (he is very prolific) and while he certainly use humour, he also covers many serious subjects for the reason I mentioned above: the serious nature of the issues facing Mexican and all Latin American authors.
This book deals with serious topics but, as in his first book translated into English – Fiesta en la madriguera (Down the Rabbit Hole) – humour plays a key role. Of course, the thesis was on twentieth century Latin American literature. He does not comment on twenty-first century Latin American literature.
The humour in this book is often situational. For example, we start with a group of sixteen/seventeen year old Mexican boys – their pimples are described in great detail to show how immature they still are – who are planning on developing a golf course, which will cost them some two million dollars. They have managed to raise around fifteen thousand. And just to show how ludicrous the whole situation is, when they have finished discussing the matter, they go back to the house of one of them, watch porn films and masturbate, together.
Juan Pablo moves on from the golf course while the cousin who brought him in seems to be up to various dubious activities. Juan Pablo has got a scholarship to study in a Barcelona university and pursue his thesis on the limits of humour in Latin American literature of the twentieth century. He is getting ready to go when the cousin (real name: Lorenzo, nickname: Projects) contacts him with another great deal in the offing. Juan Pablo declines but then is reluctantly persuaded to come and discuss it with Lorenzo.
Basically, it seems that Lorenzo has got involved with a band of gangsters and they want to use Juan Pablo as they need someone in Barcelona. Essentially, his life is turned upside down by the gangsters and it affects his studies (he has to change subject), his romantic life, involving Valentina, and even his finances. After having been turned down, Valentina does accompany him (at the request of the gangsters) but things do not work out well between them. She is unaware of the situation with the gangsters but he is dragged more and more into it.
The plot is very ludicrous and the gangsters are stereotypical bad guys, which all adds to the fun, though, from Juan Pablo’s point of view, it is deadly (in the true sense of the word) serious.
While the gangster business is going on, Villalobos (the author) is also having fun at the expense of others. He mocks the academics in their arcane discussions. He mocks Juan Pablo’s mother, who writes to him entirely in the third person. Valentina will later join in, referring to him, when talking to him, only in the third person. She goes further and, in trying to rationalise his behaviour, she tries to interpret it as though it is the plot of a novel. I came to the conclusion that this story is like the classic tale of a hero transformed, which is ultimately the essence of all novels. The hero who in order to transform his future has to betray his past and his own people. For hero, read asshole.
Gangsterism, or, to describe it more accurately, corruption in high places and also in not so very high places, is clearly one of the main targets for Viillalobos. It is strongly prevalent in Mexico and in Barcelona. A Spanish lady Valentina talks to says My son says it’s impossible to do business there [i.e.e Mexico] unless you’re corrupt, and you’re always having to give money to some politician or other to which Valentina retorts (to herself) I would have liked to tell her that wasn’t true, but since it was true I didn’t say anything. I kept quiet.
Related to this is another key issue, namely that of racism. One of Villalobos’s key references in this book (there are many others) is the Mexican writer Jorge Ibargüengoitia who mocks his fellow Mexicans. One of Juan Pablo’s (the character, not the author) points in his thesis would show how readers can appropriate a text and distort it to make it confirm their prejudices, in this case against Mexicans…The fact that Mexicans are lazy, corrupt, a sort of degenerate race.
It gets more complicated when the person he is talking to says that it is the Mexican Ibargüengoitia portraying Mexicans that way, to which Juan Pablo retorts but you can’t compare the effect on a Mexican reader of a process of self-recognition, which could even be cathartic, with the effect on a foreign reader of a process of generalization of the other, which just confirms prejudices that lead to xenophobic attitudes, a valid point.
Basic racism occurs throughout the novel. The Spanish/Catalans look down on all Latin Americans. The Mexicans look down on the Spanish/Catalans and Latin Americans from smaller countries, such as Ecuador and Bolivia. We even get other racisms, with one Bangladeshi saying I’m from Bangladesh, in Bangladesh we like beautiful women like you, in Pakistan they’re all fags. The issue of racism as a source of humour – and it certainly is used as such in this book – is a topic of discussion.
The main plot remains the gangster plot which gets completely out of hand and drags in an assortment of people, from the gay Pakistani mentioned above to a Lesbian (or, at least bisexual) Catalan literary student, daughter of a very rich man, from a Catalan police officer, who has the same name as the Catalan bisexual to an Argentinian single parent looking after his daughter and who calls everyone shithead (boludo/a in the original Spanish, which is not quite as offensive as shithead and is ubiquitous in Argentina), from an unnamed Chinaman to an Italian squatter and quite a few others.
This is a superb book. Superficially it is a gangster novel, with lots of humour, anarchic and tongue-in-cheek. However, it also a very serious novel, dealing with important matters such as corruption, racism and how we see others and they see us. Villalobos cleverly manages to combine the humour and the serious, as well as addressing other issues such as humour in literature, mothers, what is truth (and what not), academic pretensions and whether Barcelona really is such a fine city and why Latin Americans have a love/hate relationship with Spain.
I would just add that the translator, Daniel Hahn, gives us a detailed and at times quite witty explanation of his problems translating this book, not least the fact that, though he is British and the publisher is British, the characters generally use US English. I would just say that I disagree with his choice (because too many books translated into English assume it must always be US English) but understand why he did it. He says at least an American reader mustn’t find herself wondering mid-novel why everybody is suddenly Bertie Wooster. I don’t know any English person who speaks like Bertie Wooster. Even he admits that there are too many shitheads in this book.
First published by Anagrama in 2016
First English translation by And Other Stories in 2020
Translated by Daniel Hahn