Another kind of fantasy novel, a new one: Down the Rabbit Hole (2010, tr. Rosalind harvey), the tiny first novel by Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos. It is narrated by a boy named Tochtli (“rabbit” in Nahuatl) who is – here is the big fantasy conceit – the only son of a Mexican druglord. He lives in a bizarre world where every ordinary value is inverted and every material comfort is instantly available. Or almost every comfort, since Tochtli’s demand for a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus is complicated even for a narcotics kingpin. Not impossible – the characters spend the middle of the book in Liberia – but challenging.
Some voice – the whole novel is voice:
Yolcaut is my daddy, but he doesn’t like it when I call him Daddy. He says we’re the best and most macho gang for at least eight kilometres. Yolcaut is a realist and that’s why he doesn’t say we’re the best gang in the universe or the best gang for 8,000 kilometres. Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is. Yolcaut told me that. Reality is like this and that’s it. Tough luck. The realist’s favourite saying is you have to be realistic. (4-5)
Yolcaut = rattlesnake, a footnote informs me. Does the voice sound like that of a seven year-old? How about a seven year-old who is obsessed with vocabulary words?
What happens is I have a trick, like magicians who pull rabbits out of hats, except that I pull words out of the dictionary. Every night before I go to sleep I read the dictionary. My memory, which is really good, practically devastating, does the rest. (3)
Alice merely visits the world down the rabbit hole; the rabbit lives there. Tochtli’s off-kilter facility with language is one of many nods to Lewis Carroll, although the novel hardly has the linguistic dazzle of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass. Of course if Alice had narrated those books they would sound quite different.
That line above has the rabbit paired with the hat, so that’s a nod to Carroll. Tochtli’s second obsession is hats (“I don’t think I’m odd for wearing a hat”). Amusingly, the hippopotamus is also a reference, an obscure one. Each of the Alice books contains exactly one mention of a hippopotamus, both pretty arbitrary, used, I assume, because the word is fun to say and the beast is fun to imagine, but incongruous enough for me to notice them when I revisited Carroll recently.
Another Carroll reference gets right at the power of Villalobos’s little book. Tochtli is young enough to be genuinely innocent, but the world he lives in is a violent nightmare. His father is a psychopath and anyone he meets is likely to suffer a bloody death. No surprise that Tochtli is fascinated by beheadings, but through the safe distance of history, by means of the samurai sword in Japan or the guillotine in Revolutionary France.
The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, screamed 'Off with her head! Off –'
'Nonsense!' said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.
But that's not how things work down Tochtli's rabbit hole.
Idly checking Amazon, I see that Down the Rabbit Hole is due for an American release in October. The copy I read was purchased in England (see spelling of “kilometres” above) and smuggled into the United States. If I were a professional critic I would embargo this review, but I ain’t and it’s done been wrote so off it goes.