Down the Rabbit Hole

down the rabbit hole

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.

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21 Responses to “Down the Rabbit Hole”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Nice review as ever, Grant. I usually steer clear of novels with child narrators, mainly because the voices can lack a sense of authenticity, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. I’ve heard nothing but praise for it. Would it be suitable for young adults, do you think?

  2. Séamus Duggan Says:

    This one has been on my radar and is even more so now. Great review Grant. Makes me want to read it now.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. Yes, it had been on my radar for a while as well – one of those books that when you do get round to reading, you wonder why it’s taken so long!

  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) Says:

    The voice makes the book. It is the book. Great job by author and translator. When I wrote about the book I was mostly looking for Alice references, but the real art of the book is in that voice.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, not easy to get right. Enjoyed reading about all the links with Alice in your review – I would never have thought of the hippo being one!

  4. Bellezza Says:

    I can hardly get past the quote with “…people who cry are faggots.” While I know that is a too healthy dose of machismo, I am smiling to myself as I am rather sick of my own tears of frustration this summer with a surgery gone awry. It was just the dose of medicine I needed, although probably not what the author intended.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds excellent, which is good as I have a copy. I’ll save your review down to read again once I’ve read the book myself.

  6. Stefan Tobler Says:

    Thanks for a lovely review of this special book! Re young adult readers: my son read Down the Rabbit Hole when he was about thirteen and loved it. I had no qualms about that. (Though I’m glad he showed no interest at the time in reading some of our other And Other Stories titles!)

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I think it’s absolutely fine for a teenager (though I hadn’t really thought about it until Jacqui asked) – I’m now wondering whether I should teach it!

  7. jeff_lyn Says:

    Great review of one of my favourite books and writers , Quesadillas is also excellent, another child narrator who is hilarious and also a great Rosalind Harvey translation. And Other Stories sure know how to pick books.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. I have a copy of Quesadillas and hope to read it soon. I’ve read quite a few from And Other Stories – I’m not sure why it took me so long to get round to this one, which was their first!

  8. Tony Says:

    This was a great little read – still haven’t got around to his other AOS one yet…

  9. Richard Says:

    This sounds wonderful, Grant, and the combination of the meaning of silence and what you say is a “rarity of direct speech in the novel” makes me think Villalobos must be really good at what he does. Will have to read him soon–thanks for the intro to the author and so happy to hear that others share your high opinion of this work of his!

  10. roughghosts Says:

    I am looking forward to this book. I met Villalobos this fall at our local Wordfest. I saw him at two events and have a signed copy. He was very funny. It is one of the many books I did not get to this year… fortunately it’s a short one, maybe I’ll be able to squeeze it in.

  11. Quesadillas | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] July I finally read Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole, the story of a young boy’s privileged but isolated upbringing, his wealth and loneliness the […]

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