Tochtli, the child narrator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ debut novel Down the Rabbit Hole, wants for nothing. Even when he decides the must-have pet is an all but extinct Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, his dreams do not exceed the possibilities of his rarefied life in the luxury hideout of his father, who is clearly something important in drugs and violence. The title’s reference to Alice in Wonderland suggests the alternate reality within which he lives with a surfeit of possessions but a lack of people (including a mother): he claims to know only thirteen or fourteen, including his father, Yolcaut, and his tutor Mazatzin.
Tochtli’s immersion in his father’s macho culture is quickly obvious:
“If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots.”
Mazatzin has influenced him in his love of Japanese culture (he calls him Usagi, Japanese for rabbit – also the meaning of Tochtli), and he is immediately attracted to the idea of the samurai. The violence of his father’s life is not hidden from him:
“There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out.”
The animals the pygmy hippos will join include a lion and two tigers, kept for more practical reasons – to dispose of the corpses.
“Sometimes macho men aren’t afraid and that’s why they’re macho. But also sometimes macho men don’t have anything and they’re still kings, because they’re macho.”
Tochtli’s anxiety surfaces in pains in his stomach which his father assuages by giving him a new hat for his collection. The hats seem to represent a series of male stereotypes, and also allow Tochtli an imaginative escape from the palace which he rarely leaves. When he is briefly acquainted with reality it disappoints:
“In any case, Miztli was really happy to show me his so called charro [a Mexican cowboy] village. Pathetic. The truth is, there were more churches than anything else in the village. There were so many churches that instead of a charro village it was a priest village.”
Tochtli’s isolation is emphasised by the rarity of direct speech. Silence is an important aspect of the novel. Tochtli claims to know three mutes, though the likelihood is that fear is keeping them quiet:
“Sometimes, when I tell them something, they look as if they want to talk and they open their mouths.”
Tochtli, however, sees silence as powerful and will later use it against his father. At one point, Yolcaut allows two other boys into the palace to play with Tochtli in an effort to get him to speak, but Tochtli cannot relate to them. He describes the Star Wars figure one of them brings as “pathetic” – “it wasn’t an original, it was a fake one from the market.”
Despite this, we retain sympathy for Tochtli, so clearly a victim of his upbringing, while at the same time we are aware that this coming-of-age novel is one in which the narrator’s maturity relates only to the world of his father. Villalobos recreates the violent scenes Tochtli sees portrayed on television in miniature in his own life, for example when, having stolen a small pistol, he shoots one of the lovebirds they keep as pets. When he does finally acquire the pygmy hippos he does so in such a way as to symbolise his acceptance of his inheritance.
Down the Rabbit Hole is a wonderful example of the child narrator: it does everything you could possibly hope for in such a slim volume. Tochtli remains a credible creation throughout, and Villalobos uses his childish enthusiasms to both illustrate the society he lives in and demonstrate the development of his character. That this is so perfectly conveyed in the novel’s voice must also be due to the excellent work of the translator, Rosalind Harvey. This is one of a number of short novels I have read recently which demonstrate that the power of literature is not measured in pages.