Down the Rabbit Hole (first published in Spanish as ‘Fiesta en la Madriguera’) is the debut novella from Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos, and the first book to be published by new imprint And Other Stories. It has since been shortlisted for a number of literary awards, including The Guardian First Book Award and the Newton First Book Award at the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival. It has also received ample praise by established writers: Ali Smith selected it as her Book of the Year for 2011. It has already been translated into eight languages.
Not quite following in the trend of Latin American ‘narco-literatura’, the story centres around a young boy called Tochtli (the ‘rabbit’ in the rabbit hole), and his rather innocent but tragically comical and matter-of-fact narrative about the bizarre world in which he lives. With allusions to Alice in Wonderland and its distorted realities, Villalobos shows us the violent, corrupt and paranoid world of a Mexican drug baron through the eyes of his son, who is just of an age where he has started to make observations about how his world works.
Tochtli means ‘rabbit’ in Nahuatl, Mexico’s indigenous language, and, as with much in Villalobos’s story, the characters’ names are heavily symbolic. Tochtli’s father is Yolcaut, meaning ‘rattlesnake’ – which perfectly summarises his shady and manipulative state of being, and his killer instinct – and Tochtli’s part in Yolcaut’s theatre certainly gives the impression of an animal caught in the headlights. There is a shocking realisation at times that here is a boy who is being groomed by his father for a life of violence, drug trafficking and dead bodies.
Here is one of my favourite Tochtli quotes, that not only shows us something of the brutality he sees around him but also the fact that, at the end of the day, he is still just a child wanting to dress up and play games: “These are the things you can hide under a detective hat: your hair, a baby rabbit, a tiny little gun with minuscule bullets, a carrot for the baby rabbit. Detective hats aren’t very good hiding places. If you need to put a rifle with gigantic bullets in there it won’t fit.”
Villalobos uses such tragi-comic observations to provide us with a keyhole view into a drug baron’s domain, but it is not simply about this, nor is it simply about a small boy becoming immunised to some deeply disturbing events. This complex novella is also a commentary on Mexico, with various cynical references to nationalism. And Villalobos manages to make it about so much more. This is the kind of multi-layered book that you can read several times over and take away with you something new from it each time. Expect to be shocked, amused and saddened, enlightened and then confused. Whatever your reaction to this story, it won’t be half-hearted, which, at only 70 pages long, is quite an achievement by its author.