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Review: Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole

July 21, 2014
Juan Pablo Villalobos poses with a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

Juan Pablo Villalobos poses with a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

I’ve just got around to reading Down the Rabbit Hole, the semi-surrealist debut novella by Tapatio author Juan Pablo Villalobos. This charming but slightly disturbing short story is narrated by the precocious young son of a Mexican drug lord who is desperate to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.

The title is an obvious nod to Alice and Wonderland and the protagonist, Tochtli, is clearly as lonely and bored as Alice was, only his “wonderland” is a remote palace in the realist but still quite surreal context of Mexico’s bloody drug war.

Tochtli, who only knows “about 13 or 14 people” – plus another 10 or so dead people, but they don’t count, he says – lives with his paranoid father and is homeschooled by his minders. The tragicomic novella details his quaint obsession with hats, the French, samurai warriors and that elusive Liberian pygmy hippopotamus of his dreams, while also throwing in dark references to Mexico’s machismo culture and the nightmarish world of the drug war.

Combining elements of magic realism and narco-literature, Villalobos presents the world through an observant but naive set of eyes and illustrates the psychological damage that is being heaped not only on the narrator, but on an entire country that is becoming desensitized to violence. However, most of the gory or serious moments (aside from one great tragedy that comes late in the book) are offset by humor, as young Tochtli frequently misses the point to great comic effect.

“Mexico is a disastrous country,” he proclaims amid widespread reports of beheadings and mutilations. “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.” (On a side note, Down the Rabbit Hole also supports my personal belief that pozole, a popular Mexican soup, is “ridiculous,” as Tochtli puts it, “because it’s got cooked lettuce in it … Lettuce is for salads and sandwiches.”)

The first book by Villalobos – who was born in Guadalajara and later moved to Barcelona and then Brazil – Down the Rabbit Hole was released in 2011 and became an instant critical success. It was nominated for The Guardian’s First Book Award and has been translated from Spanish into English, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Portuguese and Romanian. If you’re into Latin American literature it is well worth picking up a copy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jeff Collins permalink
    July 26, 2014 13:29

    I loved this story. His novel Quesadillas is also excellent, great story and wonderful colourful characters. I believe there is more of his work in process of being translated, one to watch for.

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