I first heard about Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ when it was voted as a submission for the Guardian’s First Book Award last year but the newspaper’s readers. It was clearly a hit with the judging panel as it went through to the shortlist. I was intrigued by the fact that it was such a hit with readers and also a translated novel and so when I saw it in the library I snaffled up a copy. Well this was one of those books which you don’t want to give back.
All Tochtli, the seven year old narrator of ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ wants in life is to have a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. We all want crazy outlandish pets as children (I really wanted a panther, I was bought a duck I named Rapunzel) only for a child like Tochtli this wish could actually be a reality as he lives in a strange wonderland (not quite the rabbit hole Alice fell down) where as the son of a very rich man anything is possible. Only it is the reasons behind his wealth and his father’s position in society at which this book gives a sly, often funny, sometimes horrific and occasionally disturbing look at over its shoulder. There is a lot more going on with this tale than initially meets the eye.
“This is what was on the news today on the TV: the tigers in the zoo in Guadalajara ate a woman all up, apart from her left leg. Maybe her left leg wasn’t a very juicy bit. Or maybe the togers were already full up. I’ve never been to the zoo in Guadalajara. Once I asked Yolcaut to take me, but instead of taking me he brought more animals to the palace. That was when he bought me the lion. And he said something to me about a man who couldn’t go to a mountain and so the mountain came to him.”
Child narrators are something which either work superbly in a novel and make it or can completely ruin it with a more saccharinely sweet, naive and possibly precociously irritating tone. It is a very fine line and one that an author has to get just right. When done well they can be used as a way of innocently describing much more adult themes in a book or for leaving gaps in which we as adults can put the blanks, this is the way that Juan Pablo Villalobos uses his narrator Tochtli. Tochtli is a wonderful narrator as he describes the strange circumstances, somewhere in Mexico, he finds himself in as the son of a drug lord – of course Tochtli doesn’t know this but through what he doesn’t say we put the pieces of the puzzle together. I will admit Tochtli is rather precocious, almost spoilt and yet he didn’t grate on me in fact I found him rather endearing in a way, often funny even when the things he discusses are horrendous. Villalobos uses this tool of child narrator adeptly and it shows the power of Rosalind Harvey as a translator that she makes this voice carry on ringing so true.
“Today there was an enigmatic corpse on the TV: they cut off the his head and he wasn’t even a king. It didn’t look like it was the work of the French either, who like cutting off heads so much. The French put the heads in a basket after cutting them off. I saw it in a film.
…On the TV they showed a photo of the head and the truth is he had a really bad hairstyle.”
The other thing that Juan Pablo Villalobos masters so well is making so much happen in so little time and space, both in the period that the book lasts but also with so few pages. To give too much detail would be to spoil what is a wonderful read. There are other things going on in the background the more you look at the book (and I read it twice once just before New Year and again just after) such as the fact that in translation Tochtli’s name means ‘rabbit’ and his fathers ‘rattlesnake’. It alsmot sums up the relationship in the book. More clever games are played with humour, there are some darkly funny moments yet soon there are some simply darkly disturbing ones. I think I can say that I wasn’t expecting the ending at all and it left me with a very strange and uneasy feeling and one that has lasted with me for quite some time, it hit me even more the second time round and I wondered what Tochtli’s future might be. I shall say no more here though; I would love people to discuss this with though if you have read the book, maybe by email in case of spoiler.
‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ is a short, sharp (both in its humour and its subject) book of brilliance which can easily be devoured in one sitting, and I would almost recommend you do sit and read it in one go to truly absorb its power. I haven’t read anything quite like it and its once more highlighted the fact that I don’t read enough translated fiction, of this book is anything to go by there are so many worlds and experiences that I am missing out on and I am now desperate to discover more.
Who else has read this and what did you think?
Oh and I should give a shout out to the publishers And Other Stories who I went off and found out more about after finishing this. They are a new not-for-profit publishers sponsored by the Arts Council, I wish I had known about them sooner, especially if all their books are going to be this good, as I would have asked for a subscription to their works as a Christmas present, though of course my 30th is on the horizon.