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Juan Pablo Villalobos: Fiesta en la madriguera (Down the Rabbit Hole)

Someone described this novel as ludic, a word that I would not normally use but definitely seems relevant. Post-modern and playful might be other words that could be used. It is not really a novel, as it is quite short but Villalobos has called it as such so here it is and very deservingly. Narcoliteratura, i.e. literature with a drugs-based setting, is a common phenomenon, particularly in Mexico and Colombia. There is not much on it in English but this Spanish-language website gives a list of some of the key narcoliteratura books.

This book is interesting as it is narrated by a child, Tochtli (it means rabbit in Nahuatl), son of a drug dealer, Yolcaut (it means rattlesnake in Nahuatl). There is no mother in the picture. Tochtli considers himself macho and very much one of the gang. Indeed, he has been accused of being precocious but that is primarily because he knows a lot of big words, mainly gleaned from his night-time reading of the dictionary.

Yolcaut is leader of the gang. He has two full-time security guards to guard the palace where they live and a gardener to look after the garden of the palace. Mazatzin is educated so he helps in that area. He used to be a very successful, earning millions in advertising. However, his ambition was to be a writer so he went off to the hills to be a writer. It did not work out but, in the meantime his partner stole all the money so now he has to work for Yolcaut. Tochtli despises him for this: educated people know lots of things about books, but nothing at all about life.

Tochtli rarely goes out, not least because it is not safe. He has a large collection of hats, with Yolcaut and others frequently buying him new ones. Mazatzin gives him his education. Virtually all he needs he has in the palace, including toys, electronics, protection, a private cook, Cinteotl, and a private zoo, which includes a lion and two tiger. In a laconic aside, we learn that at least part of their function is to eat the corpses that their business inevitably produces.

Tochtli tries to be involved, for example listening in while Yolcaut and the local governor are discussing a cocaine deal. He is particularly annoyed when he learns that what he had been told was an empty room is, in fact, full of guns, and steals a small one for himself from the room.

However, things are starting to happen. Mexican drug dealers are being deported to the US and, as Mitzli, one of Yolcaut’s employees states it’s fucking chaos outside. There is one thing that Tochtli would like to have and that is a Liberian hippopotamus (i.e. a pygmy hippopotamus). With all the chaos going on, Yolcaut decides it is time to go away and where better than Liberia, even if Liberia is, like Mexico, a disastrous country.

So off they go to Liberia where they spend a lot of money getting someone to track pygmy hippopotamuses and, of course, while they do know about drugs and guns and the like, they do not know about pygmy hippopotamuses and it all goes wrong. Sort of. When they get back home, things have not really calmed down but with the odd murder and with the help of Alotl with the big bottom, things settle down.

What makes this book is Tochtli’s point of view, both naive and innocent but, at the same time, not unaware of what is going on. He takes, of course, an anti-intellectual approach – Most books are about useless things that don’t matter to anyone – and a simplistic view of other countries (the French, who sound as if their throats hurt from cutting off so many kings’ heads). Yolcaut, who is clearly a vicious thug, comes over as a devoted father rather than a thug and, indeed, that is what he (partially) is. We also see Tochtli growing into a gangster, aware of guns and their use, as well as enjoying the trappings of wealth.

Villalobos cleverly has us seeing everything from Tochtli’s point of view, so that the whole business of drugs, gun fights, murders, corruption and all the other aspects of drug-dealing is seen almost as a game, hence my use of the word ludic to describe this book. It works very well because we know what is really going on but cannot help but go along with Tochtli and his view. And Other Stories is one of those excellent small publishers who has introduced an English-speaking audience to such gems as this book.

Publishing history

First published by Anagrama in 2010
First English translation by And Other Stories in 2011
Translated by Rosalind Harvey