Book review - I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me

Juan Pablo Villalobos writes comic novels about Mexican violence and impunity, blending satire with flights of imagination. In Down the Rabbit Hole, he uses a child’s voice to describe a drug lord’s kingdom in a nightmarish inversion of Alice in Wonderland — miniature guns fire real bullets, giant cats feed on human corpses, and corrupt politicians are invited to lunch. Quesadillas is narrated by Orestes, a 13-year old who lives with his impoverished family on a hill “in the middle of (fucking) nowhere” and focuses on the disappearance of his twin brothers in a supermarket. Villalobos is adept at satirising Mexico’s criminal world and political mendacity, while his depictions of violence also remind us how we’re becoming inured to daily atrocities. 

His fourth novel, I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me, is more complex. Daniel Hahn offers a masterly translation, mixing US/UK English, but I wonder what British readers will make of this book. The long, overly punctuated sentences, unmarked dialogue and shifts in narrative tense will frustrate some and there is a lot of swearing. And yet, somehow, Villalobos’s chaotic, feverish narrative works — it is a challenging, but rewarding read.

I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me is about a Mexican student - also called Juan Pablo -  who becomes embroiled in a gangsters’ turf war with Mexicans, Italians and Catalans vying for control in Barcelona. Villalobos highlights the far-reaching effects of lawlessness in Mexico and how quickly corrupt forces can infiltrate even august institutions. Some of Villalobos’s criminal fraternity have degrees and wear suits, effectively rendering themselves invisible.

Juan is first picked up in Guadalajara in Gandhi, a well-known Mexican bookshop. His life is transformed when he witnesses his cousin’s brutal murder and is coerced into taking his place. Juan has enrolled to study literature at Barcelona’s Autònoma Uni — his proposed dissertation is on “the limits of humor in Latin American literature of the twentieth century.” The criminal organisation compels Juan, under pain of death, to change his adviser and the subject of his doctoral thesis. He is then ordered to make fellow student, Laia, the lesbian daughter of a famous Catalan politician, fall in love with him. Juan’s girlfriend Valentina accompanies him to Barcelona but, repelled by his behaviour, she moves out and starts tailing him around the city.

 The novel is related from four perspectives: Valentina’s diary, Juan’s increasingly agitated account and his mother’s hilarious emails which sound as though she is conducting a continuous conversation: “Son, you know you are your mother’s favorite child, but don’t tell your sister, and your mother will deny it if you do.” Letters from Juan’s ill-fated cousin are delivered from beyond the grave — a narrative device that Villalobos exploits to the full. He also laces the unexpected with humour. For instance, Juan’s description of the thugs who kidnap him undercuts the menace of the scene: “They were very squat and dumpy, as my mom would say, and sported bellies pregnant with beer and a lot of gel on hair-dos so baroque they were almost Churrigueresque, but with a couple of guns (one apiece) that instantly gave them the ferocious appearance their genes had denied them (unarmed they would have looked like a pair of jolly, chubby little guys . . . ).”

Hahn has his work cut out for him but rises to the challenge. As he observes in his translator’s afterword, Villalobos even nuances the language used by his Hispanic characters when they swear, depending on where they’re from. By layering humour and horror, Villalobos exposes the devastating effects of unchecked corruption.

Originally published by the Financial Times