“Human remains aren’t kept in baskets or crates of vintage brandy but in plastic bags from the supermarket, as if you could buy human remains in the supermarket. At the most you can buy cow, pig, or chicken remains in the supermarket. I think if they sold severed heads in the supermarket people would use them to make pozole. But first you’d have to take off their hair, just like you take the feathers off chickens. Bald people like me would be more expensive, because we’d already be ready to go in the pozole.”
Juan Pablo Villalobos’ first English-translated novel, Down the Rabbit Hole, left me breathless and wanting more. Our narrator is seven-year-old Tochtli, motherless son of a Mexican drug kingpin. Anything that he wants, he gets. Much like the main character of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Tochtli has hundreds of hats.
“Wearing a hat is a good habit immaculate people have. In the sky there are pigeons doing their business. If you don’t wear a hat you end up with a dirty head.”
Tochtli is obsessed with samurai and he reads the dictionary. When Villalobos throws us into this surreal world, our narrator wants nothing more than to own a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus.
When he gets bored, he wanders the rooms of his father’s heavily guarded compound. While the book takes place in a modern day Mexico, the imagery created through elementary eyes (life inside the compound, the freedom to receive anything you want but being unable to leave the premises) presents a rather medieval tone. A castle surrounded by armed soldiers, where a spoiled prince plays with his imagination inside.
While the insides of the drug lord’s compound seem peaceful and pleasant through the eyes of our narrator, the problems outside are mentioned constantly. Police, rival gangs, body parts, everything.
“There’s a scandal on the TV because they showed a photo of the policeman’s severed head. But it’s not because of his hairstyle. This is the scandal: Some people thing they shouldn’t show pictures of severed heads on the TV. Or corpses. Other people think they should, that everyone has a right to see the truth. Yolcaut laughs at this scandal and says that this is the bullshit people amuse themselves with. I don’t say anything.”
This book is unlike anything I have read. It is so minimal but so well done. My only serious criticism about Down the Rabbit Hole is the length: at a quick 70 pages, it flies by too quickly. Although it’s short, the novella contains enough material for a full-length film. Spend an hour or two reading a serious jaw dropper: a novel of madness and violence through the eyes of a child who sees the world as one big fairy tale.