If, like me, you want your reading to be balanced than this book will provide a healthy dose of irony to boost the recommended intake of sarcasm and will keep you sniggering for ages, but make no mistake; the subject of this book is no laughing matter. Villalobos looks at a contemporary plague that has befallen his homeland Mexico in a most devastating fashion – the drug trade with its bloody side effects. We are introduced to this theme by Tochtli, the seven year old son of a drug baron, who lives a solitary life in a palace under the protection of hit men. The boy’s naïve narration is movingly innocent, funny and painful, all rolled together. And this story is his account on how he came upon the latest item on his wish list; a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia or, better still, two of those, because Tochtli has learnt about the benefits of hording from his millionaire father.
From cover to cover there are no slack moments or lazy pages; the writing is dense with associations, double meanings and salsa. The story begins with Tochtli informing us about his passion for collecting difficult words. Some of his favourites are: precocious, sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating. But Tochtli is not always sure what these words really mean and how best to use them. On the subject of hair he comments:
Hair is like a corps you wear on your head while you’re alive. And it’s a devastating corps that grows and grows without stopping, which is very sordid. Maybe when you turn into a corps your hair isn’t sordid any more, but before it is. That’s the best thing about Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses: they’re bold.
The seven year old has indeed an odd yet profound take on life:
It seems like the country of Liberia is a disastrous country. Mexico is a disastrous country, too. It’s such a disastrous country that you can’t get hold of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Actually, that’s what you call being a third-world country.
The pages are crammed with such short, sharp snapshots which shock us into seeing the world through Tochtli’s eyes as he encounters prostitutes, corrupt politicians and treacherous drug dealers. We learn about his father’s paranoia and the severed body-parts which forces them to temporarily leave the country. But this story is not only told through quirky words which crop up in the most unexpected contexts and distort conventional understandings, it is above all told through the power of repetition and objects. Tochtli’s hat collection reveals much about his childish need to classify everything in order to feel in control. He believes that to solve a problem all you need is a detective hat and that a sombrero is usually worn by serenading sentimentalists and that crowns should always be removed before decapitation to avoid staining them with blood. He is impressed with the French for inventing the guillotine and decides that such tools are far superior in bringing about the end of a regime than the approach taken by the Americans who simply shoot their unwanted presidents in the back. This is a book about the twists and turns of a child’s mind exposed to the most gruesome and incomprehensible truths many people in South America face on a daily basis. Not surprising the boy suffers from psychosomatic symptoms. We are left wondering if he will grow up to step into his father’s footsteps or if he will be able to break with the past. In the meantime Tochtli keeps convincing himself that he is macho as long as he wears the right hat, but in truth his name Tochtli translates as rabbit which might also explain the title.
Down the Rabbit Hole is a compact and rewarding read even if, like many great books, it leaves the reader wanting more. It is written with the attention to detail usually found in short stories yet has the gravitas of a longer piece. It is clearly indebted to sudamericano fiction but resonates above and beyond. Indeed, this book is, despite appearance, a sparkling gem of global scope. It reminded me of Kurkov’s classic novel Death and the Penguin which amalgams crime and surrealism with witty humour.
I have no doubt that this is an excellent translation by Rosalind Harvey yet I was left with the question; can the reflective, self-critical tone of this book be fully translated? After all, much of the dynamism in this story is due to the criticism on its own government which is potentially ruled by drug cartels while to us these are the misfortunes of a faraway country, something we can not easily grasp despite the recent revelations regarding the Murdoch Empire. Still, even if the impact is filtered by distance, the message is ‘sadly’ clear enough.
Evidently it is a book of quotable and sobering comments, here is one about writing:
One day instead of teaching a lesson, Mazatzin told me his life story and it’s really sordid and pathetic. What happened is that he used to do really good business in TV advertising. He earned millions of pesos by making up adverts for shampoo and fizzy drinks. But Mazatzin was always sad, because he’d actually studied to be a writer. This is where it gets sordid: someone earning millions of pesos being sad because they’re not a writer. [...] He wanted to sit down and think and write a book about life. He even took a computer with him. That’s not sordid, but it is pathetic.
Villalobos has chosen to tell his story through the voice of a fou savant which allows him to express some extraordinary things with sheer simplicity and get away with it. In this sense it is reminiscent of Vonnegut or Saunders, so it goes. This tragic-comic delight is Villalobos first novel and I hope there will soon be more awesomely sordid and immaculate works by him.