Villalobos, Juan Pablo. Down the Rabbit Hole. 2010. Trans. Rosalind Harvey. New York: Farrar, 2012.
Last night I attended a reading by the Mexican novelist Juan Pablo Villalobos (who was educated in Spain and now lives in Brazil), his first ever in the United States. He read from Down the Rabbit Hole, a 70-page novella about a Mexican boy, Tochtli, who is the son of the head of a drug cartel. I read it last night after buying a copy and getting it signed. Villalobos was one of the best readers I’ve ever seen as far as engaging the audience. He insisted on a Q-and-A session after he finished reading that was not originally part of the program, and was very gracious after the reading, happily autographing books and posing for pictures. I bought the book more because I liked him as a person than because I was interested in the book itself; I wanted to have a memento of the occasion.
It’s a good story on the surface, with just enough humor to help readers get through its crushing sadness. Tochtli is desperately lonely because it’s unsafe for him to leave his father’s compound, so he finds solace in collecting hats and reading the dictionary. Of course I loved these quirks as someone who loves words and has always enjoyed collecting. But the value of the novella is in its political message, summed up in Tochtli’s assertion that “Mexico is a disastrous country” (14). The drug war is making life in Mexico less and less tenable, but most people in the U.S.–including many politicians–are ignorant of this fact, and of the role that U.S. laws surrounding drug consumption play in perpetuating the situation. The violence already affects U.S. border cities such as El Paso, Texas (see Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s Desert Blood and Ana Castillo’s The Guardians for well-researched fictional depictions of this violence), and it will only continue to get worse.