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.

GRANGER HISTORICAL PICTURE ARCHIVE
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The stuff of life: how A S Byatt intertwined the lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny

In Peacock & Vine, Byatt has turned works of art and their shade, texture, patina and heft into words.

How to evoke a colour in words? It is a task of daunting simplicity which A S Byatt attempts in her essay on the artist-designers William Morris and Mariano Fortuny. A Fortuny dress in pleated silk embellished with gold pomegranates is, she writes, “a colour somewhere between dark pink and pale red . . . a shining rose crossed with rust”. She adds, “no one reading what I have written will imagine the colour very well, or at all”. An adjacent photograph of the dress shows that “rose crossed with rust” is a fine description of its luscious and evasive colour – though it is also true that the words will conjure a slightly different tone in the mind of every reader, and none of those imagined russets will be exactly that of the dress.

Still, if anyone can turn words into shade, texture, patina, heft, it is Byatt. Her fictions swarm with physical objects of intense emotional potency and with characters whose lives they touch in strange and unexpected ways. Byatt herself, she writes in her introduction, has “always admired those whose lives and arts are indistinguishable from each other. And as I grow older I become more and more interested in craftsmen – glass-blowers, potters, makers of textiles.” Her own ancestors, she remarks, were Staffordshire potters.

On a first visit to the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, Byatt found herself unexpectedly thinking about William Morris, whose work she knew well. “I was using Morris . . . to understand Fortuny. I was using Fortuny to reimagine Morris. Aquamarine, gold green. English meadows, Venetian canals.”

The two men were born four decades apart: Morris in 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, to “a family with no aesthetic interests”, Fortuny in Granada in 1871, to an aristocratic family of artists and collectors. Each led a life of intense, multifarious ­creativity in surroundings where no distinction was made between domesticity and professional work. Morris designed houses, gardens, furniture, stained glass, tapestries, textiles, wallpaper, books and typefaces. Fortuny was a painter, photographer, theatre designer and inventor whose innovations included a system of electrical stage lighting that revolutionised the staging of Wagner’s operas.

Both he and Morris came late to textile design, but it is perhaps for this that each is now best known. In 1907, after reading a book by the archaeologist Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan palace at Knossos, Fortuny designed his first purely fashion creation, the Knossos scarf, incorporating Minoan imagery. In 1909 he patented his Delphos design for a pleated sheath dress in the Grecian style. The dresses were made of fine silk, dyed with vegetable dyes, hand-pleated using a technique that remains a mystery and held together with Murano glass beads. They turned the female body, of any size or shape, into a graceful column, and they were both elegant and extremely comfortable – though not, Byatt thinks, “sexy, either in 1910 or now”.

Fortuny saw his creations as works of art, and they were worn by women of highly evolved aesthetic sensibility: the dancer Isadora Duncan, the art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Byatt notes that Kay, the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, was buried in a Fortuny dress. She was not the only fictional character to wear Fortuny: his designs are a potent presence in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Of all the dresses owned by the narrator’s lover, Albertine, a Fortuny in blue and gold, lined in Tiepolo pink, is her favourite; when she leaves him, she takes with her only a dark blue Fortuny cloak.

In his lifetime, Morris was almost better known for his writing than for his designs. His literary output was as prodigious as his craft: a book about his journeys to Iceland; News from Nowhere, a pastoral utopian fantasy; translations of Icelandic epics and of a 16th-century Venetian book on the art of dyeing; an epic poem, “The Earthly Paradise” (vastly popular in his lifetime, but now almost unreadable, Byatt says: “The rhythms hack and bang”); as well as books and essays on art and design.

Pattern, Morris wrote in his 1881 lecture “Some Hints on Pattern Designing”, must possess “beauty, imagination and order”. It is here, in the tension between imagination and order, that Byatt finds the connections between her heroes that illuminate the work of each. In chapters on motifs that both men loved – pomegranates and birds – she explores the multitudinous ways in which they used them; the exhilarating collisions of naturalism and abstraction, the audacious juxtapositions of simplicity and complexity.

In considering this, she considers, too, the acts of making and looking. Both of her subjects, she says, were “obsessive workers, endlessly inventive, endlessly rigorous, endlessly beautiful”. They acknowledged no separation between art and labour, but made their lives and their work a seamless continuum; and, through the beauty they created, invited us to do the same.

“It is always surprising,” Byatt writes, “how people don’t really look at things.” But she does, and in this brilliant and tenderly observant little book, with its elegant Gill typeface and handsome colour illustrations, she celebrates the fruits of making and looking: “the endlessness of what is there to be imagined and shaped”. 

Peacock & Vine by A S Byatt is published by Chatto & Windus, 183pp, £14.99

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt