Friday, 7 August 2015

Hats, decapitations, and hippopotamuses

Full title: Down the Rabbit Hole
Author: Juan Pablo Villalobos, translated by Rosalind Harvey
Genre: Novella
Attributes: 74 pages, paperback
Publisher: And Other Stories (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole exhibits the essential attributes of Narcoliteratura. It has at the centre of the narrative a Mexican gang doing its deeds, armed to their teeth, killing, bribing, intimidating, making a lot of money and focusing almost exclusively on the protection of the immediate family. It is against this background that a young boy by the name of Tochtli (with very few exceptions, the characters have Nahuatl names that signify animal species; Tochtli = rabbit) leads his secluded life. The narrative is told exclusively from his perspective. The proximity of a person so young to violence of that magnitude is likely to upset some readers. Too bad for them, because Villalobos does a great job at giving the narrator a voice that’s innocent in spite of all that lies behind his life. And that voice makes everything interesting and worth reading. Not to mention the complexity of the text itself, a short but incredibly dense novella that exploits the experimental nature of the topic to incredible extents.
Like all young boys, Tochtli goes about getting wise about the world. For that purpose, his father, Yolcaut (= rattlesnake), the head of the gang, also known to the media as The King, has hired a private tutor. So Tochtli learns things. But he doesn’t do so the official way, not like other kids his age who attend proper schools with proper teachers teaching proper disciplines with proper learning outcomes. Mazatzin (=deer), the tutor, turns out to be an infiltrated journalist, but one who’s had the chance to put some seeds into the boy’s mind. His influence, however, is minimal, since the dominant figure is the father, who always speaks to the boy in the language of gangs and who teaches Tocthli almost everything he knows.

Juan Pablo Villalobos. Source: And Other Stories
The two of them play macabre games in which dead bodies and killing techniques are made to sound as innocent and child-like as a game of What’s the Time, Mister Wolf?
“One of the things I’ve learned from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet. Sometimes they need three or even fourteen bullets. It all depends where you aim them. If you put two bullets in their brain they’ll die for sure. But you can put up to 1,000 bullets in their hair and nothing will happen, although it must be fun to watch. I know all this from a game Yolcaut and I play. It’s a question-and-answer game. One person says a number of bullets in a part of the body and the other one answers: alive, corpse, or too early to tell.‘One bullet in the heart.’‘Corpse.’‘Thirty bullets in the little toenail of the left foot.’‘Alive.’‘Three bullets in the pancreas.’‘Too early to tell.’”
Speaking of things that might upset some readers, this is father and son having quality time together. Tochtli spends his childhood thus, mostly bored by the seclusion that’s the only thing he’s ever known. From his father, he learns how to count and how to account. He learns that the essence of things stands in numbers, whether the number of bullets that can kill a person or the number of killings shown on tv, or the amount of money that can buy someone’s silence, or simply the taking into account of the family’s possessions:
“[O]ur palace has ten rooms: my bedroom, Yolcaut’s bedroom, the hat room, the room Miztli and Chichilkuali use, Yolcault’s business room and five more empty rooms we don’t use.”
From his father, Tocthi also learns a nationalist sense of pride and a macho way of assessing self-worth.
“What I definitely am is macho. For example: I don’t cry all the time because I don’t have a mum. If you don’t have a mum you’re supposed to cry a lot, gallons of tears, two or three gallons a day. But I don’t cry, because people who cry are faggots. When I’m said Yolcaut tells me not to cry, he says:‘Chin up, Tochtli, take it like a man.’”
The entire novella has this tone of accountancy under the sign of maturity about it, the narrative voice recording life as if it were a ledger, with its various tables and categories and classes, their use, their worth, their applicability. Tochtli lists his desires the way he lists the rooms in the palace in which he lives. Whatever it is that he wants, he registers no apparent change in emotional intensity. He wants hats, he wants a samurai sword, he wants a Liberian pigmy hippopotamus, and all his wishes are granted. In what counts as his normality there’s a very short distance between desire and fulfilment. And because of that desire itself doesn’t stand out as anything special. It’s just a thing that exists out there, a list of wants, another list.
In spite of all this, though, Tochtli doesn’t sound like a spoiled child. He catalogues the world this way because this is how the world is to him. He doesn’t throw tantrums, he doesn’t stomp his feet while requesting things, he doesn’t ask for the impossible. What’s more, he’s intelligent and sympathetic. He’s capable of humour and of reason. When he acquires the hippopotamuses he’s been dreaming of (yes, there’s not just one but two, a pair), he calls them Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of Austria. Black humour, as it turns out to be, but humour nonetheless. And for all these things Tochthli sounds likeable, clever, congenial. Clever as the author who wrote him up, and who made this truly brilliant parallel between decapitations, of which the book is full.