DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE (Fiesta en la madriguera) by Juan Pablo Villalobos (& Other Stories, 2011)

This odd novella (just 70 pages long) is about the world of a violent drug gang as seen from the perspective of a 7-year old boy, Tochtli, the son of a drug baron.

The title, of course, makes you think of the surreal underworld Alice falls into, but this Mexican ‘wonderland’ is too imbedded in reality to rank as a fantasy, and it certainly not a children’s book.

This boy’s name means ‘rabbit’ in Nahuatl, Mexico’s main indigenous language. The novel’s translator, Rosalind Harvey, notes that most of the character’s names refer to some kind of animal; his boy’s father’s name is Yolcault which translates as ‘rattlesnake’.

The boy lives in a palatial hideout and knows more about how people die than a kid of his age should. He has a relish for language and reads the dictionary every night before going to sleep. He loves to use words like ‘devastating’, ‘sordid’ and ‘pathetic’.

He knows that living things become corpses by making orifices from which blood comes and that these holes are most effectively made by bullets from small pistols.

Also on the theme of death, the boy is fascinated by the difference between guillotines and Samurai swords; both of which are also efficient tools for killing. He admires the sophisticated system in France where baskets were placed to catch the severed head when the guillotine blade fell. He appreciates that a Samurai can remove body parts with his sword as well as the head.

The author poses with a Liberian pygmy hippo.

What matters to Tochtli is being macho (i.e, not a faggot), building a collection of exotic hats, Samurai warriors, swords, pistols, corpses, lettuce, hair transplants and, above all, he dreams of one day having a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus as a pet. The hippo becomes a symbol of something both tragic and unattainable.

His father doesn’t like being called Daddy. He is described as a realist. Tochtli says “Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is”.

In his short introduction, Adam Thirlwell says of the novel that “in its investigation of innocence and knowledge, it is a deliberate wild attack on the conventions of literature”.

I’m not sure I would go as far as to say that it is an attack, but it is clear that the author is aware of the limitations of conventional storytelling. The narrative here is more significant for what is left out than for what is described.

The boy seems to be speaking for Villalobos when he says: “Educated people know a lot about books, but they don’t know anything about life.[….]Most books are about useless things that don’t matter to anyone”.

This debut novel is interesting as an experimental work in a genre that has been dubbed ‘Narco-literature’, but its quirky style left me feeling as cold and detached as the characters.