Books of the year 2011: Sarah Churchwell

Down the Rabbit Hole - Juan Pablo Villalobos


My book of the year is Down the Rabbit Hole (And Other Stories, £10) by Juan Pablo Villalobos. At a scant 70 pages, this first novel, translated from the Mexican Spanish by Rosalind Harvey, about the child of a drug lord locked away in a compound who likes hats and longs for a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, is that rarest of animals, a book that is, to all intents and purposes, perfect.

Tochtli (a useful glossary tells us that it means "rabbit" in Nahuatl, a Mexican indigenous language), the little boy who narrates his own little tale, reads the dictionary before he goes to sleep at night and introduces himself to us by proudly telling us "some of the difficult words I know": his favourites are "sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating". He uses them whenever he can; his memory is "good, practically devastating"; Mexico is "a disastrous country"; his tutor is "sordid" because he is a failed writer. And "I think at the moment my life is a little bit sordid. Or pathetic." His life becomes more sordid and pathetic as his disastrous father, Yolcaut (Nahuatl for "rattlesnake"), leads them all further down the rabbit hole, forcing little Tochtli, and the reader, towards an inexorable conclusion that is tragic, immaculate and devastating.

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