Seeing himself in the mirror, the narrator realizes something that gives him a little modesty. “It was not so much the disproportionate volume that my hair acquired when it fluffed up due to the humidity of the approaching summer, but the length and deformity of the sideburns, which when I saw myself in the mirror made me think of footballers from the 80s, rock stars from the ’80s, populist politicians from the ’80s, characters from TV shows from the ’80s. But unlike the character in his novel, whom we know only as the narrator, John Paul Villalobos (49) appears on the other side of the Meet screen with a flashy afro that he wears proudly, like a literary Jackson 5.
Is that somehow, in his latest novel hairdressing and letters, published via Anagrama, Villalobos plays with the idea of autofiction, without fully developing it. In fact, at the beginning he placed an epigraph that plays with what is said and what is not said, like everything in good literature: “Nothing in this book is true, except what is.” That’s why he plays with not mentioning members of his own family. “(In the family) there were already four of us: the Brazilian, the teenager, the girl and me. I will call them this way because none of the three authorized me to use their names in these pages”, relates the narrator. Contrary to what other authors do who openly use their real life as an input, such as Karl Ove Knausgård.
“This novel is a parody of the mechanisms of autofiction, I also did it in I’m not going to ask anyone to believe me (2016), where I also used my name in part. Although it is a very different novel, it was also the intention to play with an autobiographical starting point, and from there the question ‘What would happen if…?’ begins to work, which after all is the question of all fiction”, says Villalobos to Cult.
Herralde Novel Award 2016, Villalobos is part of an outstanding generation of under-50 Mexican authors, which includes other names such as Guadalupe Nettel, Emiliano Monge, Fernanda Melchor, Jazmina Barrera, Daniel Saldaña Paris, or Valeria Luiselli. He lives in Barcelona and has published all his books with the Catalan publisher Anagrama, since he was discovered by Jorge Herralde himself. That happened because Villalobos sent an unpublished novel to apply for the 2009 Herralde Prize, Party in the Burrow, which did not win, but instead his phone rang. “Herralde looked for me, he called me, he told me that he liked the novel and he wanted to publish it. That is why I have all my books in Anagram from the beginning, ”he commented to this medium.
In his work he has developed a fluid narrative, with touches of humor and irony, which makes his books accessible to reading. In addition, he usually addresses issues of our times, he is not a writer who clings to a nostalgia for past times. In Villalobos, everything is present. In fact, in this novel he addresses the phenomenon of social networks.
In a minute, the protagonist takes a photo and it goes viral on Instagram. What relationship do you have with social networks?
Very intense with Twitter (@VillalobosJPe), less interested with Instagram, because it is a network that does not seem so close to literature. I haven’t used Facebook for many years. Twitter strikes me as a place to explore two things: first, character building. In fact, the one who tweets is the narrator of my novel. Whoever thinks I tweet is wrong, I am very clear that it is not me. And later, it is a place where that character rehearses narrative tones, small stories, small ideas that I later explore and use in a deeper way in my literature. I see Twitter as a testing ground. It is very interesting because it also happens very quickly, in real time, there one sees how a certain type of humor or a certain type of discourse works.
Like all writers, Juan Pablo Villalobos also has his obsessions. One of them is the issue of immigration, which somehow dialogues with his own reality as a Mexican living in Barcelona. He did it in his previous novel The Invasion of the Spirit People (2020) and in his non-fiction book I had a dream (2018). He also takes it up again in this novel, with multinational characters, such as the French hairdresser and the Ecuadorian who asks the narrator for help to write a novel.
Do you feel that conditions for foreigners have improved in Spain?
I don’t know if they have improved or changed. What is certain is that the condition of the Bolivian, Ecuadorian or Pakistani immigrant who comes to Europe to earn a living for economic reasons is always at the end of the entire cycle of opportunities that society can offer its citizens. Any setback that a society has, where it first hits is the immigrants. Now there is a lot of talk about the economic crisis that will come in the coming months due to inflation, due to the war in Ukraine, and immigrants will be the first to suffer the effects of that crisis, because they have the most precarious jobs. That vulnerability has not changed.
How have you seen the rise of far-right movements in Spain and Europe?
That is a worldwide phenomenon. The resurgence of certain discourses that must be qualified for what they are: new fascisms. They feed on populism fueled by social networks, with communication mechanisms facilitated by the Internet, where there is a great manipulation of information, a conscious management of lies, sometimes under the fake news, which is a construct that seems like a euphemism for not saying that you are lying. Fear arises, fears arise and from there, certain regressive positions. This was seen in Brazil, in the United States, in Hungary, in Italy, in France. What is specifically Spanish has to do with Francoism, there is a movement that is nostalgic for the Francoist process, you have to think that Spanish democracy is very young. We must not fool ourselves, there are VOX or PP cadres that come from Francoism.