the one who wears the crown is the one who’s made the most corpses

Down the Rabbit Hole, by Juan Pablo Villalobos and translated by Rosalind Harvey

I tend to be a bit nervous of child narrators, mostly as I think they’re rarely done well. It’s a very particular skill and one most writers who don’t write specifically for children don’t possess.

That’s perhaps why it took me so long to get round to reading Down the Rabbit Hole. It’s a book I own on kindle from a 99p Amazon sale, and in hardcopy as a free gift when I signed up for the publisher’s (And Other Stories) subscription scheme. I even have a Down the Rabbit Hole mug:

Given all that investment it’s a good thing I liked it…

Tochtli is the young narrator. He likes hats and samurai and he has a burning desire to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. Early on he comments:

Some people say I’m precocious. They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy. Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating.

Each of those five words get used by Tochtli throughout the rest of the book, correctly most of the time or at least near enough (though there’s a definite sense of him showing off by using them). They summarise his world and it quickly becomes obvious quite how far his world is from what most children would consider normal:

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 sad Yolcaut tells me not to cry, he says: ‘Chin up, Tochtli, take it like a man.’ Yolcaut is my daddy, but he doesn’t like it when I call him Daddy. He says we’re the best and most macho gang for at least eight kilometres. Yolcaut is a realist and that’s why he doesn’t say we’re the best gang in the universe or the best gang for 8,000 kilometres. Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is. Yolcaut told me that. Reality is like this and that’s it. Tough luck. The realist’s favourite saying is you have to be realistic.

Yolcaut is a drug lord. Tochtli lives in a remote mansion with him and in consequence knows barely over a dozen people. Several of them he believes are mute though to the reader it’s clear they’ve either been forbidden to talk to him or are afraid to do so. This leaves him with only his father and his tutor Mazatzin as guides on how to live.

Mazatzin isn’t the monster Yolcaut is, but Tochtli considers his life “sordid and pathetic” since Mazatzin was a once-successful ad exec who had wanted to be a writer but failed and instead eventually ended up working for Yolcaut. He’s an educated man, but education isn’t as useful as a gun and a willingness to pull the trigger. Mazatzin considers himself left-wing and argues passionately from time to time about the need for social justice. In another context that might have made him a more sympathetic character but here his choice of employer instead makes his hypocrisy evident.

Everything Tochtli wants is bought for him. The pygmy hippo would fit right in alongside the tigers and lions already kept in the garden. He doesn’t know how unhappy he is. He has stomach aches which are clearly unspoken pleas for attention and Yolcaut responds by buying more presents.

Tochtli doesn’t know what his father does with his mute girlfriend when they disappear into a bedroom for hours at a time, but he knows what it looks like when people beg for their lives and he knows how corpses are made:

There are actually lots of ways of making corpses, but the most common ones are with orifices. Orifices are holes you make in people so their blood comes out.

He’s familiar with other methods too – knives and machetes and guillotines (that last one reserved for the French to use on kings and queens). There’s a powerful sense in Down of innocence being corrupted. Tochtli is just a child. He shouldn’t have seen what he’s seen. His narrative shouldn’t be the powerful portrait of appalling loneliness that it is.

Later in this short (70 page) book Tochtli is angry with his father and pretends to be mute himself to punish him. Some local boys are brought in to play with him but Yolcaut finds them annoying and they’re sent away again, though not before one gives Tochtli a Star Wars figure he’d brought with him. Tochtli thinks it’s “pathetic” as it’s so inferior to all the amazing things he already owns. It’s a chilling scene and all the more so because Tochtli so evidently has no idea at all how to interact with another child.

The thing about being a child is that for a while at least whatever situation you grow up in is all you know. It’s normal by definition. It takes time and contact with others to realise quite how many ways to grow up there are. Tochtli doesn’t have that and over the course of Down we see him being moulded as all children are but in directions no child should ever go.

We don’t use our tigers for suicides or for murders. Miztli and Chichilkuali do the murders with orifices made from bullets. I don’t know how we do the suicides, but we don’t do them with tigers. We use the tigers for eating the corpses. And we use our lion for that too. But we mainly use them for looking at, because they’re strong and really well-proportioned animals and they’re nice to look at. It must be because they’re so well fed.

Villalobos packs a lot in here and does so very effectively. As well as the exploration of Tochtli’s character and situation there’s some bloody off-screen action due to a challenge to Yolcaut’s position (the reader can piece it all together even though Tochtli is largely oblivious to what’s going on) and later on there’s a trip to Liberia to pick up Tochtli’s hippo. This is a world in which anything can be bought, except of course a halfway-decent childhood.

And Other Stories include an introduction which is good and not too spoiler-y and a very helpful short glossary. The first entry of the glossary is worth reading ahead of the main text as it sheds light on the character names, each of which is Nahautl for a type of animal. Tochtli means rabbit for example, while Mazatzin means snake. Yolcaut means rattlesnake.

Other reviews

Plenty to choose from in this case. I really liked Grant’s review at 1st Reading’s Blog here which is great on some of the symbolism. Other reviews I liked and which helped inspire me to read this were from Stu at Winston’s Dad’s Blog here and from Shigekuni here.

While writing this I also discovered this fascinating review at Wuthering Heights which goes into some detail as to how Villalobos references Alice in Wonderland (largely lost on me since I haven’t read it but very interesting to discover). Finally, there’s a nice review by Nick Lezard of the Guardian here which is good both on the humour of the book and on its exploration of failure to see the bigger picture.

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8 Comments

Filed under Mexican fiction, Novellas, Spanish, Villalobos, Juan Pablo

8 responses to “the one who wears the crown is the one who’s made the most corpses

  1. Sounds like it packs a lot into its 70 pages. To capture the warping of a child’s life like this is no mean feat although being a softy I’m not sure how well I would deal with it. I work in an environment with children and you come across some who so obviously have no idea how to interact with the world in what we would expect to be the normal way for a child, and it’s always down to the parenting and the environment.

  2. I think the book’s humour helps hugely with readability. It’s chilling, but it’s never a misery-fest.

    Warping! Perfect word for this. I do wish I’d thought of it. Oh well.

  3. I read this earlier in the year and loved it. One of my favorite books of the year, in fact. In addition to Villalobos’ skill in navigating the treacherous child narrator waters, I thought another strong suit of the novella was its seemingly perfectly calibrated blend of humor and violence. Really risky but eminently rewarding writing.

  4. It sounds striking and very effective, especially in the way it captures the narrator’s voice – as you say, child narrators are really hard to get right. Nevertheless, I fear I would find it too upsetting to read, even with the humour to balance things up. A little like Karen, I’m a bit sensitive to this sort of story when it impacts on a child’s well-being…

  5. I expect it to be on my end of year list Richard, though candidates for that are looking crowded this year (interestingly most of them are translated from Spanish). I absolutely agree with “perfectly calibrated blend of humor and violence” and for that matter that it’s “risky but eminently rewarding writing”. A real winner for me this one.

    Jacqui, it is very well done but yes, there is a definite tragedy to it since part of what we’re seeing is the warping of a child into what we know will one day be a monster. At the same time it’s very good and it’s only seventy pages so one can always follow up with lighter fare.

  6. All of that in just 70 pages? That’s a hell of an achievement. I’m with you in being hesitant to read books with child narrators, I often find they just can’t get the child voice right.

  7. Your comment got me thinking Booker. It is, but the format allows some things we might otherwise expect to be cut back on which does create space.

    Tochtli is a pre-adolescent child. He doesn’t have many people in his world and those he does he doesn’t have much insight into in terms of their motives and inner worlds. That allows Villalobos to have consistent characterisation without actually having particularly deep characterisation – of course it’s not deep, it’s a child’s perspective.

    So while normally we would both probably expect a fair bit of time to be spent on character psychology, here that’s not only not required but would clash with the concept. That must save a lot of space.

    Similarly, much of the worldbuilding (for want of a better term) is provided by the reader. Villalobos doesn’t need to describe much physically because Tochtli only notices the things that interest him. As readers we have a pretty good sense what it all probably looks like anyway, so that’s more space saved.

    So I guess it’s a question of focus. The child narrator allows Villalobos to cut back on areas where we might normally expect more detail. Then of course having the child be intelligent but raised in a highly abnormal environment gets around issues as to whether the child’s narrative voice is credible – we make allowances because the child’s experience is so far outside our own.

    Interesting. I hadn’t quite thought it through but your comment got me thinking how he does manage so much, and the answer in part turns out to be by knowing what to omit.

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