By Juan Pablo Villalobos
Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
Published by And Other Stories
Reviewed by Jessica Patient
Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novella, Down the Rabbit Hole is a surreal story about the drugs culture in Mexico, body parts appearing on the news, rooms full of guns and a rollercoaster of a journey to grant a boy his ultimate dream. The dark fringes of life are seen through the innocent eyes of Tochtli (his name means rabbit in Nahuatl, Mexico’s main indigenous language), aged seven, whose only desire is to have a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.
Through Tochtli’s viewpoint, the reader witnesses the isolation from living in a compound with his paranoid father, a drug lord. The only people he knows are hit men, prostitutes, servants, corrupt politicians and his tutor, Mazatzin. Death and killing surrounds Tochtli and yet he doesn’t seem to understand what is happening. He is only concerned about his hat collection and learning about the Samurai. This unawareness reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s Room. Both books combine a serious, disturbing situation with comic observations of the world around the protagonist.
“They definitely killed him, because later I saw Itzpapalotl go past with her mop and bucket.”
Tochtli reads the dictionary every night and tells the reader that he knows – sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating. As the novella progresses, the reader witnesses that Tochtli does not know the real meanings and contexts for these words. Villalobos shows us a character who seems to think he has lots of freedoms. In reality, the reader can see the seclusion that Tochtli is suffering because he is not allowed outside the compound, other children are turned away and he becomes entangled within his father’s growing paranoia. Tochtli is trapped by his limitations just like Alice in her wonderland.
“Speaking of the brain, it’s important to take off your hat before you put bullets into somebody’s brain, so it doesn’t get stained.”
He desperately wants a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia to along with his other animals, which are kept in cages, in the garden and are occasionally fed the victims of his father’s drug business. Tochtli thinks he is telling the reader the story of getting his hippos but he is failing to understand the bigger picture of his Father’s business. Villalobos successfully shows the reader through off hand remarks from Tochtli what is clearly happening in the tragic world around the young boy.
Down the Rabbit Hole was originally published in Spanish in 2010 and Rosalind Harvey translated this edition. Harvey successfully captures the voice of Tochtli, which helps make the book enjoyable. In the past, I have found translated books very dry but Down the Rabbit Hole has restored my faith in translated fiction.
Down the Rabbit Hole is a smart punchy novella and will hold your attention until the end.