Friday, August 24, 2012

Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is. - Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

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.


  1. Smuggled? Are American border officals really looking out for contraband literature? If so, I'm in trouble because one of my recent posts was on a book which hasn't come out in Australia yet...

    Anyway, this is a great book, if a little short - and you really can't go wrong with a Pygmy hippo in the story ;)

  2. There must be a whole genre of Alice inspired literature (I mean, directly inspired, like this one, not just influenced by), not that I can think of anything off the top of my head. There also seems to be an emerging Mexican literature around the drug war. I just wouldn't have expected these two genres to intersect.

    An aside, but I have often longed for a local bookstore that carried titles published in the UK but not (yet) in the U.S. - it's quite dismaying how much literature gets published over there but not here, or how long the delay can be before a U.S. edition appears. And then there's that unfortunate Harry Potter phenomenon of dumbing down some books for American audiences...

  3. die geneigte LeserinAugust 26, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    Since it isn't yet available in the U.S., I hope you'll please excuse this shameless plug for the U.K. publishers of the book, And Other Stories Publishing:
    They are a very young non-profit press, but already have an impressive record, and they are particularly interested in literature from around the world.

    This particular alien copy of Down the Rabbit Hole was purchased in Norwich, one of the UNESCO cities of literature, at The Book Hive, a simply wonderful independent bookstore.

  4. I don't know the state of affairs now, but the import of foreign editions used to affect copyright. There was something of an issue with Lolita, since the legendary first edition was published in France.

    Which leads to border official alert #2, obscene books. See the Ulysses legal history - or is it Lady Chatterley's Love? Or both? Or neither, some other book I am thinking of?

    Anyway, I did not find the novel to be a little short, but rather just right.

    Apparently there is now a Mexican crime or thriller genre called narcoliteratura. The Villalobos novel just sort of glances off that genre. It is more of a relative of 2666, except horribly adorable.

    I know what you mean about the bookstores - like record stores in Olden Times with their import section and Rough Trade and Stiff 7" singles and Depeche Mode picture discs and New Musical Express and...

    Here's The Book Hive, for all the good it does me.

  5. This is such a great and laugh-inducing little book--even without my being up to date on all the cryptic Lewis Carroll homages you mention here. I only wish it hadn't taken me five years to get around to following your implied advice to go ahead and read the damn thing. My bad.

  6. The hippopotamus really is cryptic, and I feel lucky I noticed it. I wonder if Villalobos worked backwards - "gotta put a hippo in my book," and then it expanded into actual plot.

    I see Villalobos had a new book in English last year, plus a new new book in Spanish that won a prize that puts him in good company. I'll have to keep an eye out for these.