Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Books – Down the Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Published in 2010 and translated the following year by Rosalind Harvey, I think Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole is the first Mexican work of literature I’ve read. It tells the story of Tochtli, a seven-year-old boy growing up in a palace. He gets everything he asks for, from a room just for his hat collection to new animals for his private zoo. His latest wish to get a pygmy hippopotamus. Yet beneath the surface, something much darker is going on. Tochtli’s father, Yolcaut, is a Mexican drug baron, and Tochtli knows much more than most seven-year-olds about guns, gangs, and corpses.

This is a very powerful and often unpleasant book. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that I enjoyed reading it, just because it’s at times very unsettling, but I do think it’s a brilliant book and an impressive first work. I hesitate to call it a novel because it’s so short (just 74 pages) and there’s something in the shape of the story makes it feel more like a novella or short story. What I really admire is the way the child’s perspective on these darker events is handled. Such narrative perspectives can and do work well (take, for example, To Kill a Mockingbird or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), and Villalobos deftly handles the divide between what Tochtli sees and understands, and what we see and understand.

Saying that, I like that Tochtli does actually understand quite a lot. There are things he doesn’t recognise that we immediately do – why his father and the strange women that visit his house keep disappearing, what his father’s enigmatic phrases mean, or whether or not the majority of the servants are actually deaf and mute. But he does know what his father does, and he knows that the tigers in the palace’s private zoo are sometimes used to eat corpses. It would have been easy to make Tochtli entirely innocent, entirely unaware, and I like that he isn’t. At times he’s very unlikable; he uses very offensive language, cares mostly about his material possessions and is not remotely phased by the knowledge that his father frequently has people murdered. It’s all the more unnerving because he is so young and yet is fully aware of and accepting of much of what is going on in his life. What is appalling to us is normality to him.

Saying that, I wasn’t always convinced by Tochtli’s voice. The narrative voice is funny, engaging and above all distinctive, but while I truly believed this to be Tochtli’s voice, I didn’t quite believe that it was the voice of a seven-year-old Tochtli. Had he been nine or ten I would have been more convinced by it. Narrative voice is so dependent on language that I don’t know to what extent this might be a translation issue, but I did find it a little grating at times. Obviously this is a child being exposed to things children aren’t usually exposed to, and he’s an unusual and precocious child that loves reading dictionaries, but he still seemed a little too old to me for some of the observations he makes – not so much the language he uses, but the thought behind them.

The other characters beyond Tochtli are well created. As with the rest of the book, although we only see them through Tochtli’s eyes, Villalobos’s skilful writing enables us to get a sense of Yolcaut and Mazatzin beyond what Tochtli sees. I think Mazatzin, the tutor, was one of the most interesting characters. I found his relationship with Tochtli, and his feelings about his position in Yolcaut’s palace very interesting, even if we at times only glimpse them.

For me, the first and third parts of the book were the strongest; the section in Liberia I was less impressed by. I like the strangeness of it; it feels as odd as Alice in Wonderland, which links nicely with the title, but I don’t think it was as effectively pulled off as the other two sections.

Yet even beyond this, I think I was expecting slightly more of the story. To Tochtli, this is the story of him getting his wish, a pygmy hippopotamus, but from the start you feel as though there’s another story going on in the background. Of course there is, but I think I was expecting that other story to take up more space, or to become more important towards the end. This is part of the reason why it feels more like a short story than a novel to me; the resolution is a resolution to the story of Tochtli and pygmy hippopotamuses – and a very powerful one – but there’s less of a resolution to everything else that’s going on. I can’t decide whether I think this is for the best or not. On the one hand it’s more realistic, but on the other I almost felt like the book was missing its climax – or, if the climax occurred in Liberia, that it came too early. Or perhaps it is there, but because we are in Tochtli’s voice and it isn’t, for him, the climax of his story, we don’t really get to see it. I’m not sure whether I can really criticise this as perhaps it’s even more chilling to lack resolution – and regardless of my feelings on the overall ending, the final few pages are brilliantly executed.

I definitely would recommend Down the Rabbit Hole. It’s the kind of book you keep thinking about after you’ve read it, and although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the shape of the story, the characters and the situation are enough to make it an intriguing, if uncomfortable, read. It’s not a light or pleasant book, but it is an interesting, unsettling and excellent one.

Greatest strength: The character of Totchli, and the way Villalobos makes us see more than he sees.

Greatest weakness: As I said, I was expecting a little more of a climax to the story.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘If I counted dead people I’d know more than thirteen or fourteen people. Seventeen or more. Twenty, easily. But dead people don’t count, because the dead aren’t people, they’re corpses.’

Next week: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

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