JUAN PABLO VILLALOBOS’ TRAGIC SURREALISM: ‘I’ll Sell You a Dog’
Juan Pablo Villalobos, I’ll Sell You a Dog, translated by Rosalind Harvey (And Other Stories, 2016)
By Ailsa Peate
Mexico has recently been in the spotlight internationally thanks, mainly, to celebrities – in a bizarre twist, Sean Penn, it was revealed earlier this year, had met with the country’s answer to Pablo Escobar. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, famed for not only his vast drug empire, but also infamous for his multiple escapes from high-security prisons, was meeting with Penn along with telenovela actor Kate del Castillo. The actors’ involvement with Guzmán was to become an interview in Rolling Stone magazine, and drew raised eyebrows from many – don’t they know what this man is proven to have done, and how many people’s murders he is responsible for? – yet the pair appear to be facing no sanctions for their actions. No doubt more infamously, part of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric centres around the fabled wall that will be built to keep the criminal and rapist Mexicans out of his country of law-abiding white citizens when he enters the White House. Trump’s election to the position of President of the United States has drawn a slew of reactions from Mexicans (and others supporting them), from outrage to laughter, and sometimes, both: A close friend of mine was staying with me during the vote. Her reaction upon waking on the morning of the result, as a well-educated, bilingual Mexican with a degree from Universidad México Internacional during which time she undertook a semester at the Boston School of Art, a MA from the University of Edinburgh, experience teaching in Cambodia, and a career in graphic design and curation, could only scream, and go back to bed, deflated. The same friend sent me a meme later that day, with El Chapo Guzmán dressed in the Mexican presidential sash (the green, white, and red of the flag, featuring the eagle devouring a snake), his head adorned with his standard baseball cap. The caption read “If Trump builds the wall, vote for El Chapo so he can build the tunnel”. One man’s hero is another man’s villain, and vice-versa.
Villalobos himself has (unsurprisingly) vilified Trump in the Spanish-language press, stating: “Because of Trump, Mexico could suffer a humanitarian crisis”. The way Villalobos sees things, Mexico and the rest of Latin America must work with the EU and the UN in order to put pressure on the future American government – so that the wall doesn’t make an appearance on Mexico’s northern border. The timeliness of this quotation, (only one among many others from last November’s Spanish language press) – published in an article from November 15th 2016 – demonstrates Villalobos’ current status and popularity.
Villalobos’ first novel Down the Rabbit Hole (2011, translated by Rosalind Harvey, Spanish original Fiesta en la madriguera, 2010) is told from the point of view of a child, Tochtli (from the still-used Aztec language Nahuatl for rabbit), and focuses on his life as the eight-year-old son of a powerful drug lord about to take over a new cartel. Tochtli – a loveable yet troubling young boy – has hobbies which include reading the dictionary before he goes to bed. The words “sordid”, “immaculate”, and “pathetic” are amongst his favourites, and his life appears to be just that: a sordid affair, coloured by his father’s status; he lives in an immaculate castle of a home, with no other messy children around to sully his upbringing: a pathetic experience of childhood. Here, we see the hero/villain dichotomy return, as Tochtli’s father is revered by his son, yet the reading audience is all too aware of his disreputable lifestyle and choices: as the readers, we know that Tochtli’s only friends are his father’s henchmen or bodyguards, but for Tochtli this isn’t strange. At the time, it is amusing to hear the young boy’s childish yet well-argued thoughts on his affinity for the French due to their invention of the guillotine, and about his affection for the Japanese, for their manufacture of samurai swords, but a nagging fear remains as to what such affinities will turn the little boy into, his home environment considered.
What Tochtli wants more than anything is a pygmy hippo from Liberia, and his father is more than willing to make the perfectly ridiculous journey to Liberia with his son to get him one. Though an absurd act, told from the young boy’s point of view, in his world of extreme wealth and belongings, the journey manages not to be so far-fetched within Villalobos’ narrative – of course Tochtli’s father will travel halfway around the world to allow his son to pick up a pygmy hippopotamus to add to his menagerie of lions and tigers kept in a quiet corner of the castle’s gardens. Reading Rabbit Hole, I was surprised that at no point did this exuberant, often repetitive, childish-yet-insightful narrative style grate on me. Villalobos has an incisive vision of Mexico, which exposes the country’s intricacies, absurdities, pretensions, and concerns. On each occasion, the approach is light-hearted and even happy: the narrators seem unaware of the world around them, and they are charming: it’s tragic surrealism.
His second absurd (and absurdity is key to Villalobos), charming, and vibrant offering, Quesadillas (2013, also translated under the same name by Harvey from 2012), set in 1980s Mexico, follows the life of young Orestes, after his twin siblings are abducted while panic-buying with their mother in the local state-run supermarket (a rebel group has taken over the town hall: chaos and shoot-outs ensue). The novel begins with chapter Professional Insulters, and uses a particularly direct line, “Go and fuck your fucking mother, you bastard, fuck off!”, and sets the scene for the many profanities still to come. Swearing in Quesadillas is probably the only concept that adheres to a typical standard: Orestes lives with his family on the Cerro de la Chingada (as Harvey concisely translates, “the Hill in the Middle of [Fucking] Nowhere”); we begin to wonder whether Castor and Pollux, the twins, were abducted by aliens; a magical pen with the power to control epileptic seizures turns up (it also controls television sets in public bars); a weed-obsessed uncle, Pink Floyd, makes an appearance. Quesadillas is a joyous outpouring of surrealism, which teaches the reader that, in the very least in 1980s Mexico, poverty could be measured in cheese and the thickness of a tortilla. The picture painted is particularly far removed from the one which at times dominated Trump’s presidential campaign.
I’ll Sell You a Dog (2016, Te vendo un perro, 2015) is Villalobos’ most recent publication to be translated into English, also by Rosalind Harvey. Unlike those in Quesadillas and Rabbit Hole, in Dog our protagonist is at the other end of his life cycle: Teodoro is a 78-year-old former taco seller and artist who lives in a sought-after retirement home in Mexico City with too much time on his hands. Mischief ensues, and, from cover to cover, we watch the slippery yet loveable Teo dance through his twilight years with pleasure.
A rather significant theme of Dog emerges through its self-awareness and existentialism, most frequently expressed through Teo’s cantankerous attitude. The novel opens with Teo informing us that,
My neighbour from 3-D […] had got it into her head that I was writing a novel. My neighbour was called Francesca, and I, it goes without saying, was not writing a novel at all.
We therefore are introduced to a self-denying narrative which leaves us, the reader, inherently aware of our status, of the book’s physical presence, and of the subjectivities of literature. Therefore, does anything which takes place between the front and the back covers of Dog mean anything at all? Villalobos underlines the uncomfortable nature of the self-aware novel to us by even excluding the “real” names of characters,
I called her Francesca, which wasn’t her real name but the name I’d given her in this so-called novel of mine.
As a result, Dog is, amongst other things, an exercise in disquiet and absurdity, as highlighted by Teo’s exclamation,
Reality doesn’t matter… all I want to do is eat pozole and it’s getting cold.
So we’re back to the concept of tragic realism: Teo solves issues of existential questioning with straight-talking – pozole, beer, and sought-after Tlalnepantla whisky get him through the day. Teo, similarly to Orestes in Quesadillas who assesses his family’s economic status through cheese and tortillas, likes to assess how much longer he can live by totting-up how many more beers he can afford to buy in life – he’s got a few years left if he sticks to his fixed amount per day – but there’s always one before the last one, and a couple of extras before that one, too.
Though Teo may be able to deny one of humanity’s grands récits by redirecting his attention from “reality” to food and drink, Villalobos nonetheless constructs a rich, measured, enjoyable and, it has to be said, typically Mexican protagonist. Teo has experienced and been affected by some of Mexico’s most significant cultural and historical events of the past 50 years. We discover that his sister accompanied his hypochondriac mother to the hospital for tests on her heart on the day the 1985 earthquake struck Mexico City, and were among the 5,000 who died that day. His childhood obsession and neighbour – Marilín – is stolen from him by none other than famed painter, husband of Frida Kahlo, and today’s face of the 500 Peso note Diego Rivera. He attends art school in Mexico City on the insistence of Juan O’Gorman, painter and architect (whose house you can now rent on Airbnb). The long, drawn-out death of his father (a saga which, somehow, makes terminal cancer funny) demonstrates the family’s connection to both art and black humour: Teo’s father’s final request is to have his body given to Mexican art collective SEMEFO, because one of its then-members conceptual artist Teresa Margolles, (who frequently works with corpses, the residual remains of bodies, and bodily products) “will think of something”, adding to the novel’s thread of humorous and self-knowing poignancy.
This blurring between sadness and humour is equally demonstrated by Teo’s at times bizarre relationship with dogs. Various dogs come and go throughout his life – Turnup, Market, and 83 all add to the novel’s title, only Turnup ending up sold as fast food (served to Teo’s unwitting mother). They are an outlet for Villalobos to demonstrate his fine writing style, Turnup’s demise in particular providing an amusing yet particularly poignant anecdote.
My mother died in 1985, in the earthquake. The dog beat her to it by over forty years and in his haste he never discovered how the Second World War ended; he swallowed a pair of nylon tights, incredibly long ones, as long as my father’s secretary’s legs.
Back in the present day, Teo is a fan of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, and the novel is divided into two halves: Aesthetic Theory and Notes to Literature, references to the German philosopher’s critical works on literature and society. The retirement home’s “literary salon” is reading In Search of Lost Time (“Four thousand, two hundred and thirty pages long, hardback, with leaves thin as tracing paper and weighing in at almost three and a half kilos (those with arthritis were excused).”) Teo finds a dead dog, which he believes to have been murdered by the “literary fundamentalists”. Of course, after his experiences with Turnup, he tries to sell it on to the local butcher for a profit. This escapade ends with Teo having to give creative writing classes to Papaya-Head, a crooked animal welfare inspector. Of course.
Everything goes to pot when his copy of Aesthetic Theory goes missing, after he steals and hides the literary clique’s copies of In Search of Lost Time (meaning that, of course, the group is then indeed In Search of Lost Time). It may at first seem that Dog muddles through charade after charade for little purpose, however, Teo’s exploits allow Villalobos to comment on contemporary particularities in Mexico. For example, when the supermarket delivery boy goes missing, and is substituted by an entirely inappropriate replacement, Teo and Francesca go on the look for their trusted old friend. This farcical and fraught jaunt across Mexico City to the delivery boy’s family home reveals the sad reality of the link between the drugs trade and the ongoing – and seemingly unstoppable – disappearances in the country.
The seeming acceptance that Teo has for the hordes of cockroaches which besiege his apartment function equally as a comment on all that is dirty and unwanted in Mexico. At first, the cockroaches provide another angle of comedy in the novel, as they appear to conspire against Teo, who has a certain amount of affection for them. However, despite everything going on in the retirement home – the disappearance of the delivery boy, the literary salon’s sessions on Proust, the light on the third floor going out, and even the fumigation of the building, the cockroaches persist, remaining “cool as cucumbers”. Upon visiting the delivery boy’s family home, Teo notes,
His mother told us what she knew, that he had simply not come home from work one day. From the kitchen, a cockroach peeped out, waving its antennae: I could have sworn I’d seen it in my apartment.
The cockroaches persist, and act as a constant reminder of the dirty underbelly of Mexico’s contemporary culture of political and social corruption: they fail to leave Teo’s home though he tries a plethora of tricks and traps to get them out, until a revolutionary and fan of Peru’s Shining Path named Mao gets involved and plays them Cuban ballads, of course. The cockroaches will never really stay away, posits Mao, “Cockroaches have no memory,” he explained. “If you turn off the music they’ll come straight back.”
Failing adequately and consistently to investigate and bring to justice those who commit crime on all levels in Mexico sees the country’s criminal statistics spiralling out of control.
Harvey’s translation of each of Villalobos’ novels are excellent, with Dog being a particular highlight. When Teo opens the door to come face to face with an American Mormon, Willem, he meets a surprising new friend. Willem’s poor pronunciation of Spanish is wonderfully translated by Harvey, and provides us with additional insight into the Willem’s slow, kind, and unassuming character, which contrasts against Teo’s sharpness and quick wit.
Judging by his appearance I guessed he couldn’t be more than twenty, and was carrying out the mission of having doors slammed in his face in a poor country before going to university. In the unlikely event, that was, that going to university wasn’t a sin.
“I bring yuh the word of the Lard,” he said.
“Great,” I replied. “How much per ounce?”
Harvey’s translation perfectly documents Willem’s developing relationship with Teo, moving from frustration to a very specific kind of friendship, built mainly on a mutual distrust of cockroaches. Teo firmly believes the answer to his cockroach problem lies in the Chinese restaurant across the road, as the place had always been pest-free. Teo and Willem approach one of the establishment’s workers, who, scared and non-Spanish speaking, locks himself in the kitchen. Harvey neatly portrays the affection at the heart of an unlikely friendship between two men who take to inverted father-son roles, as Willem gently reprimands Teo for his actions;
Willem said: “Perhaps if yuh didn’t drink so much.”
“If I didn’t drink so much I’d understand Chinese? Yeah, right!”
“If yuh didn’t drink so much yuh wouldn’ have scayud them.”
“Don’t you preach at me, Villem.”
Villalobos’ literary output shines with a certain innocence. Not only do his young protagonists possess a particularly fearless outlook on the world, but even old, mischievous. All of Villalobos’ works provide great insight into Mexico, yet they are nonetheless understandable from any international point of view: a strained childhood, fear of poverty, old age – universal themes that unite us all. Rosalind Harvey captures both the light-hearted absurdities in these texts, as well as truly colouring the novels with disturbing undertones through a series of excellent translations.
Dog, in particular, is a shining example of how the absurd and existential are capable of revealing troubling questions within contemporary society. Furthermore, it is by far my favourite book of 2016, and I hope to use some of its antics as distractions in my own twilight years. Who really wants to read Proust, anyway?