Child narrators are a tricky business. Get it right and your wide-eyed protagonist will see – and let you see – far more than he can himself comprehend; get it wrong and the endearingly precocious quickly become irritatingly saccharine. Books such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have taken full advantage of the penetrating innocence of a child’s eyes and established the child narrator as something of a staple of adult fiction in recent years. Such a staple, in fact, that a naïve-yet-perceptive voice has become a rather overused – and predictable – literary formula, and a unique child narrator is increasingly hard to find amongst a glut of sickly sweet imitations.
Not so in Down the Rabbit Hole, a Mexican novella by Juan Pablo Villalobos and translated by Rosalind Harvey. The narrator in question is Tochtli, the young son of a powerful drug baron, who lives in a guarded palace, knows just 14 people and is used to having everything he wants – be it bizarre hats, samurai films or man-eating lions. But what he wants right now is a Liberian pigmy hippopotamus. And so begins a delirious journey that will take Tochtli to Liberia, to the dark heart of his father’s gang, to the depths of loneliness and to the limits of his own perception.
Shortlisted for both the Guardian First Novel Award and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, this is a bold first novel that tears apart the claustrophobic confines of an imprisoned child’s world with complete confidence. This might deal with drugs and Mexican politics, but it is no straightforward narco-trafficking novel – rather a sly and parodic take on it. Tochtli is an unwitting member of a drug gang, scornful of “faggots”, anything “pathetic” and able to coolly list the best ways to create a “corpse”. His breezy references to guns, blood, torture and body parts are as chilling as his childish innocence is endearing – and this disturbing combination makes for a creeping sense of unease.
But this novella goes further than the simple revelatory innocence of most child-narrator-driven stories. We soon realize that Tochtli is desperately trying to make sense of the chaotic world around him – memorising words from the dictionary, ordering his hat collection and fixating on hippopotami. In such a disordered world, language takes on added significance – something that we only understand when we reach the glossary at the back of the book and see that nearly all the characters have names from Nahuatl that translate as an animal: Tochtli means “rabbit”, and his sinister father, Yocault, means “rattlesnake”.
This is a sharp, darkly comic and touching examination of honesty and secrecy, loneliness, childhood and the limitations of one’s own perception. Surprisingly short and self-contained, Down the Rabbit Hole doesn’t necessarily have the same sustained depth of a novel. Even so, it is written with devastating confidence, has been beautifully translated and represents a powerful new voice in South American literature.
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