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.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution