‘Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating. There aren’t really that many people who say I’m precocious. The problem is I don’t know that many people. I know maybe thirteen or fourteen people, and four of them say I’m precocious.’
If, like me, you’re struck with the mystery, pathos and, lets face it, precociousness, of the opening sentences, then you’ll love Villalobos’ ‘Down the Rabbit Hole.’ Our narrator is called Tochtli, which helpful glossary points out means ‘rabbit’ in Nahuatl, Mexico’s main indigenous language. In fact, all the characters are named for animals, but this does not make them soft and fluffy. Tochtli’s father is called Yolcaul (rattlesnake) and ‘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. Yocault told me that. Reality is like this and that’s it. Tough luck.’ The novel seems to support Yocault’s view of reality. A powerful and paranoid drug baron, his story is no less frightening for being imperfectly understood by his verbose son.
On the one hand, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ is an almost magical quest, as Tochtli and his family/entourage leave their palace to buy a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia for Tochtli’s private zoo. The good thing about having such a young narrator is that any other business ventures that may be pertinent to this trip are ignored in the general enthusiasm for the animals. Underlying the ‘father granting his son an impossible request’ story though, it is impossible to ignore the dark shadows that lurk around every corner of Tochtli’s imperfectly understood, but surreally hideous world.
Wonderfully translated by Rosalind Harvey, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award in 2011, and it’s not hard to see why. At under 70 pages long, it’s a fast paced, demented journey into an unexpected territory. Apparently, it’s also a stand-out example of ambitious ‘Narco-literature’, a genre of writing that has grown out of the presence of drug cartels in Mexico. A book to read if you’re interesting in contemporary writing in translation, and a fascinatingly weird insight into a terrifying and tragic underworld.