Books interview: Juan Pablo Villalobos

"Why the Liberian pygmy hippo? If it's absurd, let's do it really absurd. At the end it's a symbol;

Juan Pablo Villalobos's first novel about a boy growing up in a luxury compound in the mountains of Mexico with his drug baron father, Down the Rabbit Hole, was chosen by Sarah Churchwell as her 2011 Book of the Year and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. I spoke to Villalobos and his translator Rosalind Harvey in London last week.

The original title of the book, Fiesta en la madriguera, did not translate directly to English. What happened to the Fiesta?

RH: We felt that a direct translation could be taken as an order: "Party down the rabbit hole, now! Go and have fun!" There's not that ambiguity in Spanish. Also, we felt the allusions to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were quite complete. Having the "party" -- with its echoes of the tea party, the mad hatter -- would be too many layers of reference.

JPV: Also, madriguera in Spanish is like a burrow for many different animals, so the English title is a really good adaptation. Totchli [the child narrator] is a rabbit, so the title offers this second reading. All the names in the novel are animals, which neither the Spanish reader nor the Mexican reader knows, because they are Nahuatl names -- a language not really known [nowadays] in Mexico.

The novel is Mexico doesn't have the glossary. How does a reader learn of the animal names?

JPV: They don't, but that doesn't matter. This second reading is... like a secret. You can Google it.

RH: I did.

JPV: If one reader's curiosity is really strong, he can discover what the name means. And Usagi [Totchli's temporary name] in Japanese is the same: rabbit.

You wrote the novel when you found out you were having a child. At what age will you give the book to your son to read?

I think maybe 11 or 12. As to Totchli, I always say he can be a really smart boy who's six or seven, or he can be a bit more naïve and ten or eleven. He lives in these particular circumstances: trapped in the house without contact with other kids, without school. He could be 7, 8, 9, 10... I don't care.

Have you studied child psychology?

No. My interest was particular only to literature, not a psychological or pedagogical approach. I was seduced by this voice and the possibilities when you can say a lot of things that you wouldn't if you were telling the story in the third person. The identity between the narrator and the writer can be dangerous, too, like you're exposing your ideas.

The book recalls Henry James's What Maisie Knew, the emergence of this voice in modernist literature. What works inspired you?

There's a very good book, a short story collection about the Mexican revolution, called Cartridge. It was written at the beginning of the 20th century by a woman, Nellie Campobello. Those stories are narrated by a girl, with a similar perspective and style to Totchli.

He learns words from the dictionary, often using them incorrectly. Did you plan to write a novel about semiotics?

In the language, in the use of the dictionary, I was really trying to explore the production of a vision of the world through the knowledge of language. Obviously, that's why he's trapped in a house, he only goes out once. It's a thesis novel. You describe this world, you put the characters in there, and then you have to play with that all the way through. I think the main challenge was to be coherent. Not [necessarily] true, but convincing.

In one passage, Totchli refers to a woman's bottom being "this big". The narration takes on a visual element.

As a matter of fact, I've had discussions about the orality of the book. I think it's a very literary book that stays on the page, but because of this tone I had to sometimes use these strategies to be closer to the reader; looking for some complicity. It's about trying to get closer.

Totchli has a flashback of a visit to a Mexican village that he's thoroughly unimpressed by. Has he been robbed of a heritage?

Maybe, but here I was thinking of the symbols and clichés we use to construct the identity of a town or country. You're thinking of Mexico and you're thinking of hats, mariachis, tequila; these fast associations. "Let's go to my town: it's a churro town!" "There are no churros. This is a fraud!" It's like the Disneyland of churros. It's [actually] my town.

Through the book, there are these reflections about how we construct our vision of reality with ideas that are really wasted. Tired clichés. It happens the same with Africa. How to construct the idea of it? "Poor, only horrible people" -- it's like that. It's a provocative joke.

One wonders who is protecting the boy, who is he being protected from. Who is the enemy?

I took a lot of care not to fall into the bad guys and the good guys. I try to escape from moralisms and write the story most clean of ideology. In the end, the father is a threat to his son.

How political is the novel?

Very, of course. This character Mazatism is a cliché of the late Sixties and Seventies professors at the Latin American universities, with the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions and the theology of liberation. This character joins all these clichés and the vision against America.

It's at the heart of Mexico, this hate/love relationship: "It's shit, America, but at the same time we love it". We see it at the pictures, we buy all the products, we love America -- but the speech is: "We hate America. The Gringos."

Totchli carelessly throws away a Star Wars toy given to him by another young boy. Is this an expression of his nature, rather than nurture?

For me it was a moment to see that he's a child. But it's also a small episode of the class struggle, class war. These two boys [who come to visit] are from the outside world and are the neighbours of the servants. Mexico is a very class divided society. In this episode I wanted to sell that really fast.

Why the Liberian pygmy hippo?

I love hippos in general. In the beginning I was thinking just in hippos; a boy who wanted one. Then I read this article about the animals in danger of extinction and the fourth or fifth most threatened was the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus. I thought: perfect. It's more radical. He doesn't only want a hippo -- he wants a particular kind that is in danger of extinction. If it's absurd he wants a hippo, now let's do it really absurd. At the end it's a symbol; he wants something that's really nothing.

The novel at the end is about the learning of power. How much power do you have? It depends, when you're a kid, on who your parents are. You are the son of a politician? You are the son of a very rich man? You have working class parents? You learn to deal with how much power you have.

Totchli is rather taken by the word "solidarity".

It's a word that's particular to Mexico from the Eighties. President [Carlos] Salinas was very popular outside Mexico. Like [Brazil's former president] Lula, everybody loved him because he was modernizing the country, he was a PhD graduate from Harvard, he was "perfect". He had this social programme, Programa Nacional de Solidaridad (National Solidarity Program), a collaborative project between citizens and the government. But the reality was demagogia [demagogy].

This word -- solidaridad -- was used all the time in the news, the media, advertising for six years. It became a bad word and you remember it.

What's next for you?

JPV: I just finished my second novel. It's for my daughter, who is two. One for him and one for her.

RH: Next one for your wife.

JPV: Let's see! [laughs]

You've moved from Spain back to Latin America. Where do you vote, if you do?

I've voted with a cross for twenty years. I spoil the ballot, always. Because, I think that if you don't agree with the options you have to say. It's not that I'm not going because I don't believe in the parties -- no. You have to go. And then you have to say: "fuck off, everybody".

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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The “Yolocaust” project conflates hate with foolish but innocent acts of joy

A montage of selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial layered above images of concentration camps risks shutting visitors out of respectful commemoration.

Ten years ago I visited Berlin for the first time. It was a cold and overcast day – the kind of grey that encourages melancholy. When my friends and I came across the city’s Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of over 2,000 concrete slabs, we refrained from taking photos of each other exploring the site. “Might it be disrespectful?” asked one of my non-Jewish (and usually outrageously extroverted) friends. Yes, probably, a bit, we concluded, and moved softly and slowly on through the Memorial’s narrow alleys.

But not all days are gloomy, even in Berlin. And not all visitors to the Memorial had the same reaction as us.

A photo project called “Yolocaust” has collected together images of the Memorial and selfies taken there that young people from around the world have posted to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. In the 12 photos featured on the website, one man juggles pink balls, a girl does yoga atop a pillar, another practises a handstand against a slab’s base. The last of these is tagged “#flexiblegirl #circus #summer”.

Most of the images seem more brainless than abusive. But the implication seems to be that such behaviour risks sliding into insult – a fear all too painfully embodied in the first image of the series: a shot of two guys leaping between pillars with the tag-line: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.”

Grim doesn’t begin to cover it, but the artist who collated the photos has thought up a clever device for retribution. As your cursor scrolls or hovers over each photo, a second image is then revealed beneath. These hidden black-and-white photographs of the Holocaust show countless emaciated bodies laid out in mass graves, or piled up against walls.

Even though they are familiar for those who learned about the Nazi concentration camps at school, these historic scenes are still too terrible and I cannot look at them for more than a few seconds before something in my chest seizes up. In fact, it’s only on second glance that I see the artist has also super-imposed the jumping men into the dead bodies – so that their sickening metaphor “jumping on dead Jews” is now made to appear actual.

The result is a powerful montage, and its message is an important one: that goofy, ill-considered behaviour at such sites is disrespectful, if not worse. Just take the woman who urinated on a British war memorial, or the attack on a Holocaust memorial in Hungary.

But while desecration and hate should not be tolerated anywhere, especially not at memorials, does juggling fall into the same category?

I can’t help but feel that the Yolocaust project is unfair to many of the contemporary subjects featured. After all, this is not Auschwitz but the centre of a modern city. If public-space memorials are intended to be inhabited, then surely they invite use not just as places for contemplation, grieving and reflection but also for being thankful for your life and your city on a sunny day?

The Memorial in Berlin is clearly designed to be walked in and around.  Even the architect, Peter Eisenman, has been reported saying he wants visitors to behave freely at the site – with children playing between the pillars and families picnicking on its fringes.

So how do we determine what is offensive behaviour and what is not?

A section at the bottom of the Yolocaust website also suggests (in rather sarcastic tones) that there are no prescriptions on how visitors should behave, “at a site that marks the death of 6 million people”. Though in fact a code of conduct on the memorial’s website lists the following as not permitted: loud noise, jumping from slab to slab, dogs or pets, bicycles, smoking and alcohol.

Only one of Yolocaust’s 12 photos breaks this code: the first and only explicitly insulting image of the jumping men. Another six show people climbing or sitting atop the pillars but most of these are a world away in tone from the jumpers.

The blurb at the bottom of the webpage says that the project intends to explore “our commemorative culture”. But by treating the image of the yoga performer – with an accompanying montage of her balancing amid dead bodies – in the same way as the jumping men, the artist seems to conflate the two.

In fact, the girl practising a yoga balance could be seen as a hopeful – if overtly cutesy and hipster – act of reverence. “Yoga is connection with everything around us,” says her tag beneath. And even if climbing the slabs is frowned upon by some, it could also be read as an act of joy, something to cherish when faced with such a dark history.

In an era when populist German politicians are using the past – and sentiment towards Holocaust memorials themselves – to rev up anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling, the need for careful and inclusive readings of the role of memorials in our society has never been greater.

Yolocaust may have intended to provide a space for reflection on our commemorative behaviour but the result feels worryingly sensationalist, if not censorious. Instead of inviting others in to the act of respectful commemoration, has it risked shutting people out?

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.