Juan Pablo Villalobos: La invasión del pueblo del espíritu (Invasion of the Spirit People)
This novel is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed colonial country, though various clues suggest that it is Barcelona. Many of the people we meet are clearly immigrants and often speak various languages, not understood by others. We are told where they come from but the description is merely direction. Is North-East, for example, North-East of the country, of the continent or the world? We do not know. One clue is that a man from the North-East has a daughter with a vaguely Russian-sounding name so North-East may – may! – mean North-East of the world.
We have four heroes. Gastón grows exotic vegetables which he sells to local restaurants. Max has or, rather, had a restaurant. When the lease expired, his landlord sold it behind his back, without giving him a chance to negotiate a new lease. Max has now shut the restaurant, locked the doors and is letting the food rot. He spends his time playing a game on his phone. Gastón is helping him. Character number 3 is Kitten who is, of course, a dog. He is sadly dying of advanced cancer. Gastón is reluctant to have him put down but if he has to, he wants it to be peacefully at home and not at the vet’s. The final character is Pol, Maxs’s son who is working on a special project in the tundra. Max and Pol’s mother never lived together and she returned to their home country where it seems she was killed in a car crash.
Gastón very much wants to help Max and tries to find an alternative place but the area has become trendy and costs have gone up a lot. The local estate agent, who went to school with Pol,tries to help but is more interested in Gastón’s property which he considers valuable. Gastón speaks to a man from the Far East (clearly China, judging by the name) about buying his place as well as considering building a restaurant on his land.
There also seems to be a local vigilante group who want to drive out the foreigners (not Max, who is only slightly foreign, presumably from Latin America), but rather people from the Far East and North-East, in order to help people like Max.
Things get more complicated when Max’s father turns up. Not for the first time, he seems to be on the run from the authorities in his country for embezzlement. It gets more complicated when Pol also turns up, having fled the tundra and tells the others that aliens colonised Earth using a technique known as directed panspermia and they are still controlling us. That is what his project in the tundra was apparently about. According to one of Pol’s colleagues Life is a chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution,he says sternly, everything else is literature.
Meanwhile, all Gastón really wants to do is to have Kitten put down peacefully in the garden and not at the vet’s and watch football, particularly the best footballer on Earth, who seems to be having his own problems. The best footballer on Earth, who is presumably Lionel Messi or, at least based on him, is the local hero and Gastón knows his father.
Our narrator(s) is/are somewhat interventionist. They (they use the first person plural) comment on what is going on . They tell us at the beginning we’re going to accompany Gastón at all times, as if we were floating just behind him and had access to his feelings, his sensations, the flow of this thoughts. Basically, we’re a bunch of prying busybodies. Accordingly, we see everything from Gastón’s point of view, and he seems a very decent person, concerned about everyone, particularly Max, Pol and Kitten, and doing his best to help all three. He tries his best to find what is clumsily called a sedatoress and then get her to do the best for Kitten. He tries hard to find a solution to Max’s problems. He also shows paternal care for Pol, whom he helped bring up, worried that he might behaving mental issues, though it turns out that there are others who feel that the aliens are here and directing us.
The main theme is clearly racism. There is no doubt that the immigrants, who, as is often the case, work hard, stick together and try their best to earn a living in a foreign country, while trying, to some degree, to maintain contact with their own culture. Clearly, we are meant to see a link between the aliens who are terrestrial immigrants and the aliens who are extraterrestrial colonisers.
Virtually every character in this book is from somewhere else and all seem to have some contact with their home country, either directly or through cultural connections in Barcelona. Clearly, every major European city, (as well as cities elsewhere) has a large immigrant population and this diversity enriches the culture but also leads to the sort of animosity we see here. Villalobos has touched on racism in his previous books and clearly feels strongly about it. As with his other books, he deals with the issue superbly, mixing humour, pathos and a great deal of sympathy for cultural variation.
First published by Anagrama in 2020
First English translation by And Other Stories in 2022
Translated by Rosalind Harvey