Going Down the Rabbit Hole with Juan Pablo Villalobos

If you have ever wondered what it must have been like to be one of Pablo Escobar’s children, as one does when they have watched their fourth episode of Narcos in succession, then Juan Pablo Villalobos’ new novel – if it can be called such a thing at just seventy pages – will give valuable insight. Down The Rabbit Hole was first published in the original Spanish in 2010, and was brought to the English-speaking world in 2011 by And Other Stories Press. It follows the story of Tochtli, the precocious ten year old son of Yolcaut, a Mexican drug baron known to rivals and customers simply as ‘The King’.

Tochtli has grown up a spoiled child, and so it is no surprise that the main premise of the novel is his latest must-have: a Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus. An unusual want for a ten year old, but growing up surrounded by murderers and mutes, as most of the thirteen or fourteen people Tochtli knows are – some are murderers and mutes, the terms most definitely not being mutually exclusive – has made him into an odd young boy. It should be ridiculous, almost fable-like that the book is centred on the hunt for a rare type of Hippo, but the fact that Tochtli already has tigers and a lion in his impressive menagerie of pets means we follow along unquestioningly. Villalobos also has an impressive control over his narrative and his characters that make this implausible scenario surprisingly believable.

It is a very funny novel, though the humour is distinctly gallows humour – Tochtli repeatedly expresses his admiration for the French for their efficiency in putting baskets below the guillotines before they execute people. It is clear however that this humour hides the darker message behind the story; that Tochtli has become completely desensitised to violence. He and Yolcaut play a game where they have to guess whether a person would be alive, dead or too early to tell, if a certain amount of bullets entered a certain body part. Two bullets in the head would be dead, for instance.

He also does not flinch when severed heads or limbs are shown on the nightly news, does not find it odd when his father’s bodyguards kill and maim people, and when he discovers that one of the rooms in their palace, that is supposedly not used, is full of rifles, pistols and even a bazooka, he is not shocked at the room’s contents, but shocked that his father would lie to him because as he has been told: there are no lies in gangs. The fact that the entire narrative is described exclusively from Tochtli’s point of view – not that there are many opportunities for this to change in such a short novel – means all of this is described matter-of-factly, as if it were completely to normal to comment that someone with two bullets in the gut is not yet completely alive or dead, it is instead too early to tell.

Though it is normal for Tochtli. He comments at one point in the book that he has not left the palace in eleven days due to his father’s paranoia. His entire life has been marked by encounters with drug barons, bodyguards, corrupt politicians and severed heads on the television. He thinks nothing of asking his father for a Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus, because if he already has a tiger and a lion and an extensive collection of hats too, what’s another animal, however rare? Down The Rabbit Hole is a book that falls completely on the nurture side of the nature-nurture debate. Tochtli may have gained his ‘devastating’ memory – his avid reading of a dictionary before bed ensures there are quirky turns of phrase such as this throughout – through genetics, but his approach to violence and murder is learned through the surreal nature of his childhood.

The hunt for the Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamuses goes slowly, but eventually Tochtli and his gang manage to capture two, a male and a female. They are promptly christened Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette of Austria. Odd names for Hippopotamuses, according to Yolcaut, but they are thusly named because Tochtli feels they go together well. At least one wasn’t named Guillotine. They sicken and weaken however, and have to be put down, something Tochtli insists on watching, despite it upsetting him to the point of tears. This is the only time we see Tochtli express emotion akin to that of what we would recognise as a ten year old boy, when his dream is shattered, but even this takes a darker turn.

At the conclusion of the book Tochtli receives a surprise: the two heads of his Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamuses, buffed and mounted, ready to go on his wall. He reacts almost nonchalantly, only wondering which of his hats will look better on the animals-turned-artefacts. His emotion at seeing the animals die, like his emotion at seeing corpses on the news in an evening, has been blunted by his odd upbringing, and this is the dark message behind Villalobos’ debut work. There doesn’t look to be a way out of the violence and confusion for Tochtli.

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