“I’ll sell you a dog” sounds like a fairly innocent proposition. That is until you realise the context of the offer: 78-year-old Teo (which may or may not be his real name) is attempting to sell a recently deceased black Labrador to a butcher, thinking that the butcher will jump at the chance to cut up the dog for taco meat. This dog met its rather untimely demise at the hands of a geriatric literary book club which, after one of their outdoor meetings was disturbed by the beast, took Teo’s advice and fed the animal a stocking wrapped in meat. Teo could pretty confidently assure the book club that such a method would kill the dog, because it was a method he’d tried and tested before.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Villalobos states that “the dogs are all fictional; not one was killed in the making of this novel”. This is reassuring, because not since J M Coetzee’s Disgrace have canines received such brutal treatment in literature. And like Coetzee’s book, part of the project here seems to be using casual violence against dogs to explore the history of a country which has waged political violence on its own populace.

not since J M Coetzee’s Disgrace have canines received such brutal treatment in literature

As with Villalobos’s two previous novels, I’ll Sell You A Dog is set in Mexico. The turbulence of both past and present is referenced: Teo’s grandfather was killed during the Revolution by a stray bullet. Juliette (Teo’s contemporary and grocer, with whom he’s a little in love) makes a successful living not from providing the freshest fruit and veg in town, but from arming aggrieved citizens with rotten tomatoes to use as projectiles at their various and ubiquitous protest marches.

But wait. Before we presume to start polemicising on themes, we should let Teo speak for himself. Unlike David in Disgrace, who’s the typical protagonist of a literary novel (an English professor earnestly trying to make art, in the form of an opera about Byron), Teo is a sort of anti-literary hero. He won’t join the book club that takes over the lobby in his building because he “doesn’t read novels”. The salon, led by the dictatorial and pretentious Francesca, is convinced that, far from spurning novels, Teo is actually attempting to write one. Teo takes this as a horrendous slander which he is quick to deny time and time again. When he does write, he is merely writing in his notebook, recounting the events we’re reading about: his altercations with the book club, his drinking, and the characters he meets (among them an Animal Welfare Officer with a head like a papaya, a zealous Mormon intent on saving his soul, and an undercover Maoist). Not that Teo is the Philistine he might like us to perceive him as. He’s interested in art — he was a painter before becoming a taco seller, before getting old; he often watches documentaries on Mexican artists; and he likes to read Teodoro Ardono’s Aesthetic Theory, though admittedly he reads aloud from it mainly to baffle visiting Mormons and persistent telemarketers.

Having to pass comment on a book in which the protagonist disdains anything that whiffs of pretentiousness makes a reviewer feel pretty self-conscious. Everything I’ve written up to this point feels like something Francesca would say to her book group as they make their way through In Search of Lost Time, or an excerpt from one of the lectures she gives Teo on “the literature of experience” to help him write the novel he’s determinedly not writing. But here, in his own words (or at least his author’s) is what Teo makes of his scribblings in his notebook:

What’s the meaning of it taking place? Was it a vindication of the forgotten, the disappeared, the damned, the marginal, the stray dogs? Was it a complicated way of saying art historians are revisionists? … Or, worse, was there some sort of moral lesson that meant I’d have to give up drinking and channel my compulsions towards some other activity, such as writing a novel, for instance?

And then, of course, comes the realisation that what Teo has been writing is the novel that the reader currently holds in her hands. It’s a far from unprecedented literary trick, but the twist on an old device lies in the narrator’s constant refusal that what he is writing is a novel.

The ellipsis in the above quote is my own – it hides enough words to make the quote twice as long. Which means that the text literally asks more questions than it answers. Fans of Villalobos’s bizarre but relatively plot-driven previous books might find this uncertainty somewhat of a departure. And, as if we didn’t have enough questions as it is, we can add another of our own: what is the meaning behind an author writing a novel about a man that doesn’t want to write a novel but who in the end realises that the experiences he’s been writing about in his notebook actually constitute the novel he doesn’t wish to write? Or, to put it another way, what does it mean for a novel to “be like a plate of dog meat tacos”?

In a recent interview, Villalobos says that after reaching his twentieth year away from Mexico (he lives in Barcelona) he now finds the country more difficult to understand than ever. He has to ask his friends and relatives to try explain to him what is going on. That insight we get by distancing ourselves from a place seems to have become obscuring rather than clarifying.

Like his character, Villalobos seems compelled to write. And, perhaps like his character, he’s haunted by the ghosts of artists like Manuel González Serrano, who wail that they’ve suffered more than Jesus, and demand that someone write their story. If nothing else, Villalobos tells a lot of people’s stories in this book, so maybe it doesn’t matter if, like life and dog-meat tacos, the novel is messy and rather difficult to digest.

Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Bath, where he is studying an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Along with his partner, he co-runs The Rookery in the Bookery, a website dedicated to the review of literature in translation. You can also find Adam on Twitter @therookbookery.

I’ll Sell You a Dog
Author: Juan Pablo Villalobos
Translator: Rosalind Harvey
ISBN: 9781908276742
Published by: And Other Stories
Publication date: 4 August 2016