Sunday 9th October
Durham Town Hall, Burlison Gallery
Review by Amrita Paul
Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos and publisher Stefan Tobler began their session at the Durham Book Festival by thanking the house full audience at the Burlison gallery, most of whom came to the event without much prior knowledge of Villalobos’s work. But in such a carefully curated book festival, one is always in for a pleasant surprise.
The author has written three books, his novels have been translated into 15 languages and are read by children in schools across several countries. Yet his humility is unmistakable; he says he is enamoured by the beauty of Durham City.
His books Down the Rabbit Hole, Quesadillas and I’ll Sell You a Dog, were published in 2011, 2013 and 2016 respectively. One begins to admire the tenacity of this man and his ability to churn out dark and funny stories, with young and old narrators. His writing highlights the political climate in Mexico, but also indulges in the eccentricities of his characters who are often foul-mouthed and vain.
“I’ll Sell You a Dog was supposed to be my first book, I tried writing it twice before and failed. I had written around 800 pages to make sense of its characters and the story I wanted to tell,’ says Villalobos, who first thought of taking up writing in 2006 when his wife was pregnant with their son.
“I panicked and started writing this long short story about a young boy, the son of a drug lord who desperately wanted a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. Why hippo? Because I like them myself,” says Villalobos with a chuckle.
He recounts the time when he was visiting a women’s prison in Brazil and one of the inmates said she had problem with the language. He tried to explain her that his stories needed strong distinctive voices, and the bad language was just a trait of their personalities.
“Someone then pulled me to one corner and told me that she was in jail for killing five policemen… and she had a problem with the language,” he adds as the audience breaks into laughter.
Villalobos, who loves reading translations of Serbian literature admits that translations certainly betray the original. He says, “They are versions, not the actual novel. But that explanation and context is needed when the book is to be read outside the country of its origin. But the end, they are still stories.”