Juan Pablo Villalobos returns to PEN Atlas this week, asking us to imagine the struggle of being a writer in Mexico, where fiction is so often outpaced by brutal reality

Translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

Imagine you were born in a country called Mexico. Imagine you’re a novelist, that you want to write fiction. Imagine that your stories take place in Mexico, that your characters are Mexicans, that they speak Spanish. Imagine you tune in to a Mexican radio station each morning (you don’t actually tune in, what you actually do is activate an app on your mobile phone). Imagine what you hear: that twelve people have disappeared from an after-hours nightclub in Mexico City, that no one has the slightest idea what happened. They simply vanished. Just imagine. And that day you have to write a story, you’re writing a story for an American magazine. A detective story, this is what they’ve asked you for: a story that describes ‘the contradictions in Latin America’. And you think: what shall I write? But on the radio the ex-wife of a Supreme Court judge is talking about how she has spent a year in jail, her husband’s revenge on her for a lawsuit over the amount of child maintenance he has to pay. For children, moreover, who have autism. Just imagine. Then you remember it’s your little sister’s birthday, the one who still lives in the town where you were born and raised. And so you call her to say happy birthday and after the usual phrases for marking birthdays, you ask her how things are down there. An innocent question. And your sister tells you that last weekend six youths disappeared from the town (your sister says ‘kids’, not youths). Just imagine. She says that so far this year, twenty five people have disappeared.  In that town where nothing ever happened. In that boring town where your second novel was set. And you have to write a story. And what’s more, you’re writing your third novel, a novel that is also about Mexico. How to write? What to write? How to defy reality with literature, when reality is slamming into you and crushing you and making you feel that your poor, ordinary imagination can never catch up with it, can never even get close? Imagine writing fiction in Mexico. You recall a few facts: eighty thousand deaths and twenty five thousand disappearances in the ‘war on drugs’ from 2006 to 2012; eighty journalists murdered. Then you think of your brother, who suffered extortion. Of your best friend, your childhood friend, who was abducted and pushed to the ground in a field of corn with a pistol to his head, waiting for the coup de grace. Just imagine. Imagine being pushed to the ground in the middle of the countryside, listening to someone shouting at you: If you move I’ll fuck you up! Then they tell you to get up and start walking away. With your eyes shut. And you get up and you try to walk but you trip and you fall and you trip and you fall again. Because you’re convinced they’re going to shoot you in the back. You have no doubt you are going to die. Imagine you’re going to die from being shot in the back. Then they say: You, open your eyes, asshole. And finally you can move and you walk and they don’t shoot you, they’ve only stolen your car, your money, a laptop, an iPad, a mobile phone. You’re still alive but something died inside of you (Mexico died for you, imagine that, your own country dies inside your body), and you become paranoid. And when the following day someone calls you in the middle of the night – a wrong number – you swear you’re being spied on, so you pack a suitcase and go straight to the airport and you get on a plane that will take you anywhere, somewhere far away, while you swear, you swear on your mother’s life that you’re going to get the fuck away from Mexico, that you’re going to go to Canada, or the United States, or Europe, who cares. Just imagine. You, sitting there, thinking about the plot of a story and a novel while all this reality comes down on you, obliterating you. The page in front of you blank due to all the accumulated rage. How do you get rid of this rage? How about by speaking out? What about that time you spoke about the terrible things happening in Mexico at an event abroad, what about that look the cultural attaché from the Mexican embassy gave you – remember? – what about the hour-long speech he gave about the indisputable achievements of the government you had to put up with while he drove you to the airport. One hour of listening to figures from this fantasy country, maybe now you’ll wise up about what’s really going on there. Just imagine. Demagogy travels in Mexico’s fleet of diplomatic cars. But the radio keeps on going and there’s more news: your favourite newspaper has just apologised to a corrupt state governor for not having provided enough proof of the corruption scandal it had uncovered. The governor’s lawyers are more powerful than the lawyers of your favourite newspaper – what’s new, this you can no doubt imagine. You listen to the editor-in-chief of the paper, whom you admire, coming out with what you don’t think he believes, a mollifying statement, because otherwise the governor’s vultures will swoop down onto the newspaper and take away its last cent. What’s important is that the paper survives, that it tries to continue informing people about what is happening in the country. Even if it means saying sorry. Just imagine. Your rage spills over. You cannot write in this state. It’s impossible even to think. Impossible to live. It shouldn’t be possible to live. But it is, yes, it is. It has to be possible. You have to write. And so you take a breath, and you look at the blank page in front of you. You pick up your pen. And you start to write.


About the author

Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. He studied marketing and Spanish literature. He has done a great deal of market research and published travel stories and literary and film criticism. He has researched such diverse topics as the influence of the avant-garde on the work of César Aira and the flexibility of pipelines for electrical installations. He now lives in Brazil and has two Mexican-Brazilian-Italian-Catalan children.

About the translator

Rosalind Harvey has lived in Lima and Norwich, where she fell in love with Spanish and translation, respectively. She now lives in London, where she translates Hispanic fiction. Quesadillas is her translation of Villalobos’s most recent novel, and her previous translation of Down the Rabbit Hole was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award. She is the co-translator with Anne McLean of Hector Abad’s prize-winning memoir Oblivion, and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas. Last autumn she was one of Free Word Centre’s first ever translators-in-residence.

Additional information

Read the original piece in Spanish.

Find out more information about Juan Pablo Villalobos’s new book, Quesadillas.

Juan Pablo Villalobos and his translator Rosalind Harvey will be appearing at Waterstone’s Norwich this evening September 3rd, at 7.30pm.

He will also be appearing at Mr B’s in Bath on September 4th at 7.00pm

Juan will be speaking with Deborah Levy, at Keats House, London, September 5th 7.00pm

Finally, please join English PEN, and And Other Stories for Juan Pablo Villalobos in conversation with DBC Pierre, at the Rich Mix, Bethnal Green, London, on Friday September 6th, from 7.00pm. This event will be hosted by Shane Solanki with music from special guest DJs Moshi Moshi Records.

Find out more information on these events, and how to book.