Down the Rabbit Hole, A Novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey)

It seems to be Farrar, Strauss and Giroux week at BookSexy Review.  A completely unintentional turn of events on my part.  Down the Rabbit Hole is a monumental first novel – all 75 pages of it.  That includes, by the way, both Adam Thirlwell’s introduction and a glossary.  Yet what it lacks in word count Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novel more than makes up for in quality… and accolades.  It was short-listed for last year’s Guardian First Book Award and overwhelmingly praised by critics and bloggers alike.  I wish I could claim to be surprised, but from an author whose bio advertises his research in “such diverse topics as the influence of the avant-garde on the work of César Aira” I expect no less.

What is truly remarkable about Down the Rabbit Hole is not the ratio of praise versus pages.  It is Tochtli, the book’s young narrator who – while precocious – is the perfectly written child.  He never tells us his age, but I guess it’s right seven. A child narrator who isn’t an adult trapped in a miniature body – is there anything as rare?  Villalobos (with an assist from Rosalind Harvey) has pulled off the Holy Grail of narrative devices.

To comfort me Yolcaut gave me a new hat for my collection:  a three-cornered one.  I have lots of three-cornered hats, eleven.  Three-cornered hats are hats shaped like a triangle with a very small crown.  I have three-cornered hats from the kingdom of United and from the country of Austria.  My favourite is a French one from a revolutionary army.  At least that’s what it said in the catalogue.  I like French people because they take off the crown before they cut off their kings’ heads.  That way the crown doesn’t get dented and you can keep it in a museum in Paris or sell it to someone with lots of money, like us.  The new three-cornered hat is from the kingdom of Sweden and it has three little red balls, one on each point.  I love three-cornered hats, because they’re mad soldiers’ hats.  You put one on and you feel like running off all on your own to invade the nearest kingdom.  But today I don’t feel like invading countries or starting wars.  Today was a disastrous day.

Down the Rabbit Hole is a masterpiece of innuendo and brevity.  Tochtli really has no idea how much he’s revealing when he tells us about his quest for a pet Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. We learn about his hat collection; that he calls his daddy (he specifically uses the word “daddy”, not father) Yolcaut; that “orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out”; and that his tummy always hurts.  Repeated conversations and  repeated words make up a good part of this story.  Tochtli is a sponge, providing raw data for us to sift through the filter of our maturity and experience.

Because things are more complicated than Tochtli realizes.  Yolcault is a drug lord.  Father and son, along with Tochtli’s tutor and a few trusted members of Yolcault’s gang, live in a castle.  Tochtli has no friends his own age.  But by his calculations, if you count dead people, he knows “more than thirteen or fourteen people.  Seventeen or more.  Twenty easily.  But dead people don’t count, because the dead aren’t people, they’re corpses.”  At the moment the news, which he and Yolcault watch together every evening, is filled with corpses.  This becomes increasingly significant.

I think at the moment my life is a little bit sordid.  Or pathetic.

Villalobos has written a dazzling and funny novel about family, drugs, Calderon’s war on crime  and – bizarrely – childhood.   Yolcault is fond of telling Tochtli, “Think the worst and you’ll be right”.  The power of Down the Rabbit Hole is that Tochtli still doesn’t understand what the worst is.  The tragedy is how quickly he’s learning.

Down the Rabbit Hole is in U.S. bookstores this October.

Publisher:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 374 14335 0

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