About The Author
Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1973. He studied marketing and Spanish literature. and has published travel stories and literary and film criticism. He has researched such diverse topics as the influence of the avant-garde on the work of César Aira and the flexibility of pipelines for electrical installations. He now lives in Brazil and has two Mexican-Brazilian-Italian-Catalan children.
Down the Rabbit Hole, a masterful and darkly comic first novel, is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child's wish. But Tochtli is no ordinary child: the son of a powerful drug baron, he lives in a luxurious hideout with hit men, prostitutes, dealers, servants and the odd corrupt politician or two for company. And his is no ordinary wish: too enhance his private zoo, he has his heart set on a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia.
His next book, due out in September, and also published by And Other Stories, is Quesadillas, a madcap Mexican satire about politics, big families, and what it means to be middle class.
Below, we talked to Juan Pablo Villalobos about the writer-translator relationship, Mexico's drug wars and the use of black humour.
Adam Thirlwell called Down the Rabbit Hole 'a miniature high-speed experiment with perspective ... a deliberate, wild attack on the conventions of literature.' You can read his introduction here.
Read the Introduction by Adam Thirlwell
Questions & Answers
Your book didn't always have the precocious Tochtli narrating it, did it? How did you arrive at his voice?
It started out as a matter of style. My first idea was to have Yolcaut - Tochtli's father - narrate the novel, and then I thought the narrator should be Mazatzin, his private tutor. But I wasn't happy with the results. It's always the same when I start writing a novel: I don't stop until I've found the right narrative voice to tell that story. Then one morning when I was feeling pretty frustrated (it's usually an exhausting process), suddenly, magically, the first sentence of the book came to me: 'Some people say I'm precocious', and straightaway, I felt like I'd found what I was looking for. Then I discovered that narrating the story from a child's perspective let me move away from moralising.
What do you make of having been translated into 13 languages? Do you think there is any kind of book that doesn't travel/translate well?
The great challenge of translation isn't necessarily linguistic, but cultural. How to make sure that a book provokes in somebody reading it in another language the same feelings that it provokes in its original language? Evidently, when the reader's cultural, social, economic and even political background changes, the book becomes 'something else', but I believe there's a 'nucleus' that remains - what I'd call the heart of the book. Down the Rabbit Hole would appear to be a very Mexican book - there are a ton of references to Mexican culture, music, food, cinema... but in its essence, it's a book about a father and his son, and I think that's why it can 'travel well' into other languages.
You are very precise about language, taking only a few months to write the book but a couple of years to edit and refine it. How does it feel passing the control onto a translator? How closely did you, could you, work together with any of them?
It depends on the translator - that's the translator's decision. In my experience, there are translators I've worked with very closely (Rosalind Harvey was one of them) and others with whom I've never spoken. I've actually just debuted as a translator myself - I translated the excellent All Dogs are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão from Portuguese to Spanish. Rodrigo is dead, and there were many points while I was translating his book when I would've liked to talk to him to clear my thoughts... In the end, a translation is a version of the text, an adaptation. I'm of the opinion that translators are creators in their own right - they're writers. If a writer is very worried about maintaining the 'fidelity' of his or her text when it's translated, they're better off never giving up the translation rights in the first place. It's impossible to produce a good translation without moving away, to a greater or lesser extent, from the original.
Is there an answer to Mexico's terrible drug wars?
Of course there is: legalizing drugs at an international level, education programmes to prevent addiction, information to the consumer, health campaigns. It's common sense, a lot of people know what needs to be done, but nobody does it because there are very strong economic and political interests involved in making sure it doesn't happen. Drug trafficking is a huge business; legalizing drugs would make that business smaller.
Tochtli describes a game he and the gang play: 'One person says a number of bullets in a part of the body and the other one answers: "alive, corpse, or too early to tell."' Were you nervous about using black humour in this book?
Humour is a very complicated mechanism, one that reaches completion in the reader - not always successfully. There's a proverb that says there's nothing worse than ending up laughing on your own. There were times that I did worry the novel might be misunderstood, but it didn't stop me from carrying on; this was the story I wanted to tell, I didn't censor myself in any way. I understood that some readers wouldn't accept that type of humour on a topic as sensitive as violence. I'd say that humour isn't just a means of entertainment; humour is also a way of understanding reality and, in the case of Mexico, it's also a strategy of rebellion and resistance.
Violence surrounds Tochtli and has become commonplace, even normalized. Is this an extreme version of a desensitization happening within the country as a whole?
It's a fact that societies, like individuals, need to overcome their circumstances, and sometimes that means carrying on under terrible conditions. It happens during wartime, and there is a sense in which Mexico has been living a war these past few years. But it is an extremely painful period in Mexico's history.
Tochtli's name means 'rabbit' but there are other links to Alice in Wonderland here aren't there? Was that something you were conscious of from the outset?
No, I wasn't aware of it. But I'll admit that I consider myself a big fan of Alice, so when readers started to talk about that particular influence, I thought it made sense. Tochtli, just like Alice, lives his adventures down a rabbit hole where absurd events take place.
You weren't living in Mexico when you wrote this book. Do you think it was essential to gain some distance in order to be able to write it?
Up to a certain point, yes. I couldn't have written Down the Rabbit Hole living in Mexico, immersed in the quagmire of violence. I imagine it would have ended up a very different book. But having said that, I think having too much distance comes with its own dangers - you run the risk of romanticising the country.
Who are your literary influences - in whatever language?
The list is endless... but here I go: Aristophanes, Petronius, Rabelais, Cervantes, Laurence Sterne, Voltaire, Diderot, Jarry, Queneau, Felisberto Hernández, Mario Levrero, César Aira, Sergio Pitol, Wodehouse... That's a totally arbitrary list; just the names that came to mind right now.