Juan Pablo Villalobos’s “Down the Rabbit Hole”

Juan Pablo Villalobos's "Down the Rabbit Hole"Permit me to throw a bit of late-’90s Oscar trivia at you.  Remember Roberto Benigni, that kooky Academy Award winner who danced atop seatbacks halfway to the stage? Remember his winning film, Life is Beautiful, which portrayed a father and son at a concentration camp, the former constructing an elaborate “game” out of the Final Solution to alleviate any fears his young child may have?

Well, if I may, Down the Rabbit Hole is everything that the movie Life Is Beautiful never had the courage or simply never wanted to be. The quirky novella by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey) places a child unwittingly in similar circumstances as the Benigni film does – seven-year-old Tochtli lives in the blood-money trappings of a palace with his Mexican drug lord father – but rather than stripping down to a simple tale about the leaps we take to protect our children, this book is about the insane measures we take to, for lack of a better term, enjoy them – the compulsion we have to raise them in camaraderie and with authority at once.  As “good parents,” we want our children to lead the lives that make them happy, but maybe a less acknowledged part of us wants even more to raise them as an affirmation of ourselves and our choices. Add to that, of course, the very concrete dangers of what would ever happen to Tochtli if he left the confines of his palace, and all the genuine pre-adolescent boredom that goes with it. And finally, add what is perhaps the most palpable emotion of a seven-year-old’s life: wanting. In this particular case, Tochtli seeks a new animal for his menagerie, namely the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, and nothing short of exactly that will do.

Villalobos constructs an entire parallel narrative through everything that Tochtli doesn’t say, just like Jack’s five-year-old vernacular contextualized the blurred horrors in Emma Donoghue’s Room.  And unlike the saccharine Life is Beautiful, Tochtli’s father Yolcaut is in fact trying to expose and protect his son simultaneously from the dealings of the cocaine business, as if he can’t decide whether his offspring should be more or less trusted with the full truth than anyone else – and how soon is too soon to train him as an heir to the business?  This is much more interesting than simply veiling life’s cruelties from one’s child – because, let’s be honest, that approach doesn’t work and it’s uninteresting to see it fail.

Villalobos writes in the voice of a precocious seven-year-old with astonishing accuracy. The idiosyncrasies of a child’s speech are all there: the obvious repetition of words and phrases, the overly explicated daily routine, the me-centric world of the narrative, and most poignantly, the tallying and quantifying of everything Tochtli knows. Through these numbers, we see much of the gritty infrastructure of which our narrator is only half-aware:

I know a lot of mute people: three. Sometimes, when I tell them something, they look as if they want to talk and open their mouths. But they stay quiet.

 

Our palace has ten rooms: my bedroom, Yolcaut’s bedroom, the hat room, the room Miztli and Chichilkuali use, Yolcaut’s business room and five more empty rooms we don’t use.

 

Today Miztli and Chichilkuali did mysterious things, like filling a truck with crates they took out of one of the empty rooms we don’t use…the empty rooms we don’t use are always locked, but today one was left open. And it turns out we don’t have five empty rooms we don’t use, only four, or none: one of the empty rooms we don’t use is really the gun and rifle room.

It speaks to the abilities of translator Rosalind Harvey that the childish vernacular is kept intact across languages; had it not been so preserved, the book would lose its heart, and Tochtli’s nature (not innocence, mind you, but typicality) is what informs every page. This book has been published in thirteen countries, and it is easy to see why: Tochtli is the son that any of our best intentions and worst choices would raise. Tochtli is smart, quick, and eager, but for the lack of any other example has become hardened and proud of his father’s formidable gang. He shrugs off death as a consequence for blabbing, and spends entire mornings making lists of things he wants bought for him.

But here’s the best part about Tochtli: the narrative has caught him at a moment where we still think he can be saved, some concept of innocence abstractly restored. He stands unwittingly poised on the brink of any number of things – his father’s arrest, his palace’s raid – but even though those potential calamities would force him into a more normal life (something we are compelled to want for him), we know that there is only this life for Tochtli. And something about that lets us love this story more freely, and love this child as any other, not just as one that knows a dozen different ways to make a man into a corpse.

 

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