The world seen through the eyes of a child. That’s the best short –phrase description of Juan Pablo Villalobos’ disturbingly charming short novel Down the Rabbit Hole. But Tochtli is no ordinary child and the world in which he is trapped is unlike the one the rest of us know; exclusive, yes, but like a rabbit hole it’s dark, isolating and offering little room for turn around. Tochtli – his name, translated from the indigenous Nahuatl language, means rabbit – is a precocious seven-year-old who narrates the story, starting with the declaration that he is not precocious. One of his habits is to read the dictionary each night before bed. “Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, apathetic and devastating.” These five words appear over and over as Tochtli tells his story. He sometimes uses them to characterize himself, as when he claims to have a devastating memory. But he also applies them to the very few people he knows and the situations outside his narrow existence. The more we learn about Tochtli, the more we see how these words describe his life. Other words he frequently uses: mute, faggots, corpses.
Tochtli lives in a “palace” with his drug lord father, Yolcaut, whose name means rattlesnake. Tochtli does not go to school. A tutor, Mazatzin, comes to work with him. Mazatzin calls his student Usagi, a Japanese name that reflects Mazatzin’s love of that country and Tochtli’s fascination with Samurai films. Tochtli also loves hats, especially three-cornered ones. “. . . hats are like the crowns of kings. If you’re not a king you can wear a hat to be distinguished. And if you’re not a king and you don’t wear a hat you end up being a nobody.” Tochtli, despite living in a palace, says he is not a king. He and Yolcuat, who refuses to let his son call him daddy, are members of the “best and most macho gang for at least eight kilometres.” Why eight kilomtres? Because they are realists.
Villalobos’ very short novel is a compact, image-laden tale that serves as allegory for the larger culture. In that it’s something like the late Carlos Fuentes thin novel Aura written when the celebrated author, like Villalobos, was in his 30s. The two books are vastly dissimilar in plot and style (Aura involves magical realism, Rabbit Hole is reality kept at a distance), but both reflect selfish perception’s ability to blind. Comparisons to Fuentes are appropriate in Villalobos’ case. He writes with command and precision (the English translation is by Rosalind Harvey), constructing an engaging story—what’s going to happen to this little kid? — in a way that transcends simple plot. That his themes – the futility of ill-gained wealth, the numbing effect of greed and violence, and how easily reality can be twisted—speak through such direct and innocent narration are testament to the author’s skills.
What Tochtli wants more than anything is a pair of Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses. What he needs is to break free of his isolation and gain human contact. What the story doesn’t have to tell us is what kind of man Tochtli will become. We can guess, from his isolation, from his obsession with hats, hippos, the effective use of Sumarai swords, guillotines, and various caliber bullets; and to his limited contact with the women his father brings to the palace. As his father tells him, “Realists are people who think reality isn’t how you think it is.” This kind of selfish thinking, Villalobos show us, can justify anything.