A frightening escape from reality: ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2010)


‘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.

This entry was posted in Juan Pablo Villalobos, Mexican Literature, Reading in translation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to A frightening escape from reality: ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ by Juan Pablo Villalobos (2010)

  1. This sounds wonderful, and perfect for the Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge – I’ll definitely make it a stop on my armchair travels 🙂

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  3. MarinaSofia says:

    I’ve been flirting with this one for a while – and it’s so short, it really shouldn’t be a question in my mind at all!

    • It’s a fast and very satisfying read. On the other hand, so are loads of other books, I do understand how it could take a while to get round to, the title doesn’t give much away!

  4. roughghosts says:

    I have this (signed) but haven’t read it yet. I met him last fall and saw him at two events, one was an off the cuff telling of a story from his youth, the other was a panel on black humour. He was so funny! I must read this soon.

  5. Ste J says:

    An intriguing find, this is something new to me, well I am aware of the drugs influence in Mexico but usually I aim for something more historical, so it will be fascinating to read this one. Two of my newly married friends got caught up in the taxi cab wars when there were on honeymoon, it’s a worryingly dangerous place it seems.

    • Mexico is currently very firmly in my ‘armchair holiday’ group of locations, and ‘Down the Rabbit Hole’ has done nothing to make me feel more sanguine about actually going to the country. It sees like a very frightening place, but it clearly also produces incredible literature, so I’m not entirely missing out …

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