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.