Juan Pablos Villalobos’s novel Down the Rabbit Hole (published by And Other Stories) tells the story of Tochtli, the son of a drug baron who lives in a palace surrounded by luxury, corruption and mystery. This hilarious and experimental first novel, which was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, follows a child’s quest to acquire a new pet for his private zoo, a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. The author spoke to his translator, Rosalind Harvey, about the way that Mexican politics informed the writing of his first novel, why there are few women in it and writing from a child’s perspective.


RH: One of the things that drew me to Down the Rabbit Hole was the voice of Tochtli, which is extremely strong and insistent. I read several books with child narrators as research, including Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and I think Tochtli’s voice is as searingly authentic as Roddy Doyle’s young protagonist. We’ve talked before about how for you it was more important to achieve a successful ‘literary’ child’s voice than simply a believable child’s voice – can you say a bit more about why this was important to you, and also which literary voices you drew on, if any?

JPV: While I was writing I wasn’t thinking about creating the plausible voice of a child of a certain age or condition. I was more interested in doing something with language, finding a voice that captivated me. I think that as writers our responsibility is to language, in my case Spanish, and that our commitment lies in exploring and expanding the possibilities it has, including at a musical level. For me, there should be no difference between the ways a poet and a novelist work with language. The same thing happens to me as a reader: I’m not interested in ‘transparent’ or ‘objective’ narrators, I’m just looking for gripping fictional voices. Once I found Tochtli’s voice, I worked very hard at refining it, which is why it took me six months to write the novel but two more years to edit it. With hindsight, his voice has three important literary debts, two child voices and a teenage one: Un mundo para Julius [A World for Julius, University of Wisconsin Press] by the Peruvian writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique; Cartucho [published in English, also as Cartucho, by University of Texas Press] by the Mexican writer Nellie Campobello; and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. .

After the trip to Liberia, Tochtli has supposedly seen something of the world outside the palace, but has also witnessed the brutal killing of the hippopotamuses, and he seems, at least temporarily, to have rejected his father Yolcaut as a figure worthy of respect. Yet once back in Mexico, he’s coaxed out of his samurai dressing gown and his muteness and into a bizarre family tableau, and calls Yolcaut ‘Dad’ for the first time. There is an oppressive ‘closing up’ of the novel and of Tochtli’s world here. Did you have this (or any) structure in mind before you wrote the book or was it more of an organic process?

I’d almost completely decided on the plot when I began to write. Obviously there are always ideas that come up during the writing process that you incorporate, but since it’s such a short novel there was very little space for improvisation. From the start I conceived of it as a triptych: enclosure–journey–enclosure. The structure corresponds to the basic premise of the novel, according to which the protagonist must undergo a change over the course of the story. In this sense, it’s a very traditional structure, and I associate it with coming-of-age stories. At heart, this is what Down the Rabbit Hole is: a coming-of-age novel about the loss of innocence, loneliness, loyalty, and learning how to exercise power.

You’ve said that this is a political novel. Was that intentional or perhaps simply unavoidable?

It was intentional and unavoidable. I started writing the novel in 2006, which I think was the year when drug-related violence in Mexico began to escalate. I remember that every morning when I sat down to write, first I would read the front pages of two or three online Mexican newspapers and they would be full of bodies and severed heads. On the personal side, the book is a reflection on my perception of Mexico from afar, about how my way of seeing the country changed due to my living abroad.

Many readers have commented on the lack of women (and above all the lack of a mother) in the novel as being significant, and it’s true that the only female characters conform to the stereotypical ‘whore’ side of the traditional Catholic dichotomy. I feel the novel would have been very different had there been more rounded female characters in it. Are there any female characters in your new novel and, if so, does this affect the book’s style or outcome in any way?

Down the Rabbit Hole can be read as a masculine novel, about the father-son relationship, but the absence of the mother – which is never explained and which is intentional – is symbolic. I believe that in literature what is not said can acquire a meaning just as important, or more so, than what is said. Of course I know who Tochtli’s mother is and what happened to her, why she doesn’t appear in the story. I was interested in leaving this gap in the book, which we see only through Tochtli’s stomach pains. My new novel, which is also told from within a family, has a mother and sister. I’m only now finishing writing it, so I’m not going to say anything else about it because I’m quite superstitious.

There’s a tradition of Latin American writers moving to Spain to publish their first novels, and you were living in Barcelona when you wrote Down the Rabbit Hole. Was it necessary for you to have this distance in order to write about your own country, and do you think it would have been different had it been written while you were in Mexico?

Of course. As I said before, Down the Rabbit Hole is a reflection on Mexico from outside Mexico. I sincerely believe that I wouldn’t have written this novel if I hadn’t left Mexico. Firstly, because I might not have been interested in dealing with subjects like drugs and violence, being as they are so present in the media and everyday life. And secondly, because the focus would have been very different, perhaps more concerned with what is politically correct. The most important thing about the voice of Tochtli is that it isn’t moralizing, it doesn’t judge, and this is very difficult to achieve when you’re living immersed in that reality.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole is published by And Other Stories.

Photograph © Lisbeth Salas

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