Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos – A Review

Down the Rabbit Hole
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, 70 pg

The voice of a child has the power to undercut all the foolish tropes of adult life. Handled well it can reframe one’s perception of an idea, done badly and it can descend into cloying sentimentality that is no better than didactic moralizing. Juan Pablo Villalobos in Down the Rabbit Hole has taken on the tricky task of balancing a child’s voice against the violent world of the narco, attempting to find the absurd in a culture whose surreal violence and savagery has become come to dominate Mexican life.  Using the voice of a younger child (it is unclear how old he is and Villalobos has noted that was intentional), Villalobos narrates the story of a precocious son of a drug boss that is a once funny, ridiculous, and horrifying.

The power of the voice in Down the Rabbit Hole is that it takes what has become so common place and shocks one again with the freshness of its observations. Tochtli, the boy, is one part savant one part drug king pin. His wisdom, though, comes from his narco side, so he is given to constructing his world with narco ideas. The most absurd are his digressions on how people die because they have orifices. If you have a large orifice you will die, if you have a small one you might live. The orifices, naturally, come from guns, and the boy has theorized and a whole science of death without relying of ballistic terms. His strange way of describing the world comes from his isolation within his father’s mansion. He only talks about six people with any sense of closeness, although he states early on that he knows 13 or so people. Disturbingly he has seen close to 20 corpses and at least the last moments of a man who peed himself out of fear. His father never lets him see the actual killing, but the boy has been close enough that he thinks making orifices and feeding corpses to their pet tigers and lions is perfectly logical.

He is still a boy, though, and is full of boyish ideas. His favorite movie is the Way of the Samurai and he walks around the mansion in a dressing gown in lieu of  Japanese clothing and refuses to talk because a samurai is a figure of mystery and control. Throughout the book he talks about his desire for a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. His father even takes him to Liberia to find one. It is the most absurd on the many absurd things the boy asks for. It makes perfect sense: in a world where there are no limits, how ridiculous can one’s desires get. Still, he also collects hats (pith helmets, sombreros and any other kind of useless hat), something simple that kids fixate on and wear at the most inappropriate times. Villalobos never misses a chance to contrast the child against the narco, and in one horrifying statement, Tochtli mentions that you shouldn’t wear your hat while creating orifices because you can get blood on them and they are hard to clean.

What runs throughout the book is parody of all the pop culture tropes that surround the drug lords. Villalobos turns every cliché into a a joke when Tochtli reinterprets what is supposed to be a macho culture of bling and power. Reinterpreted through Tochtli the drug lords don’t seem as powerful, but just ridiculous clichés. Everything that he and his father know seem to come from movies, whether they are samurai or gangster. They don’t live the life of gangsters so much, as imitate the life of gangsters. Where does the culture of the drug lords come from: within, without, or a reinforcing mix of popular culture and gang life? The elevation of these tropes to the level guide to life for small boys makes the whole culture absurd and horrifying. If all you have are these shallow images with which to build yours life, then you turn become a movie cowboy or samurai.

The book isn’t without it’s hard edges. Tochtli continually calls anyone who is week faggot and like Huck Finn it is a narrow line between art and stereotype, which Villalobos handles well. Similarly, the trip to Liberia could have been an occasion for easy charactures  of Africa. Since Tochtli’s world is so small, he has no chance to see beyond his father and friend. It keeps Liberia at a distance and the hipo hunt paints the narcos as just more outsiders coming to exploit Africa and return nothing. They are so consumed in their own world, they don’t see people, they see the bullet holes in buildings and spend their time counting them. It is Liberia that is father from violence than Mexico, yet the narcos think they are the enlightened ones. The contrast is forceful and pulling the narcos out of their mansion, weakens them and shows how unimportant they are away from their compounds.

Down the Rabbit Hole is one of those books that perfectly captures the absurdity of a way of life that has caused so much death and destruction. The humor and the voice are disarming, but they also have the power to avoid humanizing the gangsters. They are just creatures who act according to script. Villalobos has mentioned that he initially wrote the book from the point of view of the father, but it didn’t work. Had he done that he would have had a much more difficult task. Moreover, his book would have probably been subsumed in the tidal wave of naro literature instead of becoming a fresh and exciting novel.

Felisberto Hernández Profiled in La Jornada

I recently attended a reading by Juan Pablo Villalobos and unsurprisingly a question came up about his influences. He brushed aside the Boom writers, which he had read when he was younger. What he said interested him more were the less well known, and stranger fiction of writers from before the Boom generation. Of many of the authors he mentioned, Felisberto Hernández from Uruguay was one. Fortunately, Felisberto Hernández has been published in English so you can find his works rather readily. This week in a timely piece of publishing, La Jornada has several long and interesting profiles dedicated to his work.

Cuando murió Felisberto, en 1964, se evocaba el tamaño de su ataúd que no pasaba por la puerta. El “burlón poeta de la materia” del título de Ángel Rama era un señor apenas sesentón pero ya veterano para la época, gran comedor de papas fritas en platos enormes. “Felisbertote”, lo llamaba Paulina Medeiros en sus cartas de amor, atravesadas todas ellas por el erotismo y la infantilización. Es que el niño que quería “hacerle abedules al brazo de la maestra” no sólo no perdió esa condición asociativa y juguetona con el lenguaje, sino que la convirtió en el centro de su discurso literario. Ese narrador-niño también quería levantarle las polleras a las sillas, atisbar sus cuerpos y “entrar en relación íntima con todo lo que había en la sala”, “dispuesto a violar algún secreto”. El mayor encuentro entre la erotización infantil de la mirada y los objetos construidos está en Las Hortensias, donde el narrador se atreve a todo a partir de la teatralización de la serie de muñecas que son elaboradas para él y para su mujer, en un juego a lo Buñuel, a lo García Berlanga, en donde el individuo es derrotado por la realidad ficticia que él mismo creó.

Esa doble perspectiva: la realidad sensorializada hasta el extremo y la libertad asociativa y no culposa propia de un niño, constituyen el toque Felisberto, parte de lo que Italo Calvino consideraba una novedad sin antecedentes. No hay relato suyo, ni mínimo ni relativamente extenso, que no esté comandado por una perspectiva sensorial. El cuento “Nadie encendía las lámparas” es una muestra impecable de relato donde no pasa nada, todo hecho de climas, de cercanías mentales y de un abrupto final en el que queda suspendida la tenue acción de una tertulia y la imagen de una mujer de cabellos esparcidos cierra lo que para otros narradores realistas debería ser un comienzo: “Pero no me dijo nada: recostó la cabeza en la pared del zaguán y me tomó la manga del saco.” Zaguán, luz mortecina porque nadie encendía las lámparas, mujer recostada, silencio, leve contacto de aproximación: esto suena a tango, pero también a Robbe-Grillet, a Antonioni y a ensueño proustiano. Por esos años, Onetti había publicado La vida breve y Armonía Somers La mujer desnuda. Rastrear las cercanías y distancias entre los tres sería un buen ejercicio de comprensión comparada.

I found this piece of marketing at Amazon, but I think it does hint at where he comes from.

Lands of Memory presents a half-dozen wonderful works by Felisberto Hernández, “a writer like no other,” Italo Calvino declared, “like no European or Latin American. He is an ‘irregular,’ who eludes all classifications and labellings—yet he is unmistakable on any page to which one might randomly open one of his books.”

Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (If We Were to Live in a Normal Place) by Juan Pablo Villalobos – A Review

Si viviéramos en un lugar normal (If We Were to Live in a Normal Place) (English title: Quesadillas)
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Aanagrama, 2012, 188 pg

 Si viviéramos en un lugar normal is the second offering from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ in his loose trilogy the failures of Mexico. Villalobos isn’t interested in heavy and overwrought  realism that all the problems Mexico faces might inspire. Instead,  Si viviéramos is a black comedy often dry, but always making fun of the politicians and well to do that control Mexico’s politics. At the same time, the futile gestures of those who disagree are also a source of humor. It is a humor that paints a Mexico that is neither functioning nor magical, but questions all the tropes of Mexican society.

Orestes, Oreo for short, is one of 8 children who live in a small home on the outside of a small town during the 80’s when Mexico had severe financial problems. His father is a teacher at a preparatory school whose big passion is to shout at the TV during the news programs calling all the politicians that appear corrupt. Orestes spends much of his time wondering why they are so poor. Their home is outside of town and made of the cheapest materials and they have very little. In a theme Orestes returns to over and over, they eat quesadillas of varying quality depending on how much money the family has and how bad inflation is. The family even has a whole cheese rating scale depending on the type of cheese they can afford. The town is a hopeless place with long lines for food, an ineffectual police department, and an occasional rebellion that is so badly run and easily put down that years later the symbols of the rebels are still painted on walls because no one cares.

Against that back drop Orestes has a series of adventures that show how dysfunctional everything is. When the family gets new neighbors, rich Poles who build a giant house next door, Orestes is both awed by their immense wealth and his firs taste of Oreos, resentful that his parents haven’t done anything to remedy the situation, and completely unsure how he should behave. Yet the voice is immature, lashing out at anyone that has kept him from getting money. He has an innocence that runs up against its own powerlessness and can only resort to saying everything is fucked up.

Villalobos throws a wide attack and makes fun of religion and the culture of religious peregrination. At one point Orestes runs away from home to go to the hill where his older brother says space aliens have landed before and kidnapped their younger bothers. They march out their with a group of religious pilgrims to a shrine. Its an obvious substitution of one deus ex machina for another. It also smashes any fantasy of magical realism the reader might have. In Si viviéramo there is nothing romantic, just one absurd disappointment after another. The idea of family does not fare well either. The brothers always fight, the grandfather refuses to help at a critical moment, and when his twin brothers disappear Orestes is so nonplussed, it is hard to believe he has brothers.

Those disappointments are not only thrust on the characters from the out side, but withing, as if even given a chance to succeed, Mexico will screw it up. Towards the end of the novel the Polish family suggest Orestes’ father sell their home so a new housing development can be built. It would be the payout Orestes has been waiting for, but his father refuses. It is a futile gesture, because the government just moves in and destroys the house (it was not his land to begin with) and they are homeless and broke. If it was bad enough that political power is against them, when offered a chance to profit the family refuses. Yet they are unable to make a sensible response. There is no way out for the family, because they are unable to find a way out. They are so used to the situation they just accept it.

Those disappointments, though, can make the novel feel episodic, which might be a better way to structure realistic novel since lives are just a series of episodes. However, when it comes to concluding it all the little episodes don’t tie together. It is not necessary that everything come together, but the episodes don’t really go anywhere. It’s as if Villalobos got to a certain point and said to himself, I need to finish this. He does it in his dryly comedic fashion as a UFO comes to reunite the family. It is a ridiculous conclusion, but one that is no more ridiculous than a work of magical realism. The difference is Si viviéramos treats Mexico in less exotic terms. It is a reality informed by the then and now, the fallow pop culture of Omni magazine and cowboy movies. When looked at as a whole, the conclusion makes sense, but during the reading, working your way through each episode, knowing that the pages are running out and the episodes just keep plying on, the conclusion is a sudden stop. Had he been able to take the novel father somehow, to go beyond the comedy that feels superficial at times, he could have really written something interesting. As it is, the book feels a little light. Perhaps taken together with this first book and the as yet unwritten third, it will all make sense.

Iceland Featured in Words Without Borders for October 2011

The new Words Without Borders came out last week featuring writers from Iceland, poetry from China and a review of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s “Down the Rabbit Hole”.

By Gyrðir Elíasson
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Strindberg had ended up after death here, in a branch of IKEA in Iceland. more>>>

The Sound Words Have
By Þórarinn Eldjárn
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
Once there was a town where no two people spoke the same language. more>>>

By Sjón
Translated from the Icelandic by David McDuff
Marie was alone there and showed the painter how she and Pierre / wrestled with radium more>>>

By Sjón
Translated from the Icelandic by David McDuff
The earth (like the heart) leans back in its seat more>>>

the stone collector’s song
By Sjón
Translated from the Icelandic by David McDuff
Brimstone – pyrite – opal / and jasper – dear friends! more>>>

By Andri Snær Magnason
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
He’ll eat anything except people and foxes. more>>>

Patriotic Poem
By Gerður Kristný
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
The cold makes me / a lair from fear. more>>>

By Gerður Kristný
Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
I try to be / kind to the children / so they’ll tend my grave more>>>

The Chamber Music
By Bragi Olaffson
Translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith
I’ll possibly throw myself onto the pyre more>>>

By Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Translated from the Icelandic by Peter Constantine
You have all sucked at my breasts. more>>>

Three Women Poets
By Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Translated from the Icelandic by Peter Constantine
A man in a pirate sweater / comes in through the door more>>>

The Slayer of Souls
By Ólafur Gunnarsson
Translated from the Icelandic by Ólafur Gunnarsson
She very much enjoyed being made love to by her husband in a bed that had belonged to another woman. more>>>

Four Creaking Wheels
By Sindri Freysson
Translated from the Icelandic by Martin Regal
perhaps they’re kindling the ovens at the crematorium. more>>>