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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis