Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Review: Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Down the Rabbit Hole
Juan Pablo Villalobos
And Other Stories

Translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey

'Some people say I'm precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating.'
I came across And Other Stories when I signed up to Ellie's Translation Challenge. I was looking for interesting translated fiction previously unknown to me and I became completely enamoured with And Other Stories the minute I began browsing their catalogue. This novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos was the first to really catch my eye so when I stumbled upon a copy in an illicit trip to Foyles I could hardly resist. 

At only 70 pages Down the Rabbit Hole is a short novel and a quick read but it's brevity does not lessen it's impact. I devoured it in one day spread between my tube journey to and from work and my lunch break. It is short but full of detail, particularly when it comes to character.

This novella (or novel? What's the difference?) is narrated by Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug lord, from within the depths of their palace. Tochtli is, in his own words, a precocious child. He reads the dictionary every night, has a ridiculously large collection of hats and is fascinated by Samurai culture (he spends part of the novel walking round in a dressing gown). He also really wants a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. The action of the book is a snapshot of life from the eyes of someone who lacks understanding. Although many significant events occur, their significance is not recognised by Tochtli which makes it almost an odd reading experience. As a reader we are within and without - we can infer the seriousness of the events from what Tochtli says but it is difficult to ascribe any sense of danger or panic to the situations because of how they are narrated. I think this is a very powerful technique. I found myself worried, uncomfortable and amused in a strange way. It is dark and occasionally quite disturbing, given the subject matter and the age of the narrator. 

Simon over at Savidge Reads talked about confronting vs comforting fiction the other day and I think this novel encapsulates the ideas surrounding confronting fiction. There are themes in this (death, drugs, murder, mutilation and isolation) that are perhaps the epitome of confrontation but I would not have had the book any other way. I felt uncomfortable whilst reading it, yes, but I think that is the point of it. It is life. A sordid, destructive and not particularly delightful life, maybe, but a life nonetheless. I think that's why you can't just set aside fiction that happens to have themes you may not like because, in doing so, you miss out on all the intricacies of reality. The things that happen that just may not (thankfully, usually) happen to you. But knowing is important and that knowledge could help you at some point, somewhere.

For the writing I would highly recommend this novel and for the themes. Prepare to be confronted because if you do, it is worth it. I'm looking forward to what I discover next from And Other Stories.

'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.'



  1. I've never heard of this before but it sounds amazing. I totally agree that pushing your reading boundaries is a thing that should be done. It'd be lovely if the world was hunky dory and everybody was happy but I think ignoring the reality (and books that touch on that reality) is a risky business and that novels (let's go with novels...) like this are super important.

    Sometimes I think that I do an ok job of not letting blogging affect what I choose to read but then I read a review/post like this and realise that that's not true at all. I think my 2014 resolution is going to be reading some of the challenging books that I have on my shelves instead of getting grabby hands over the new and exciting fantasy things!

  2. I loooooove a well-done short book (novel, novella, whatever). And it's funny you mention Simon's comforting vs. confronting bits. I read his blog post and loved it. I'm listening to his podcast right now. lol


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