Juan Pablo gets acquainted with the Liberian Pygmy Hippos at London Zoo. Photo by Rita Platt

‘Something like surreal’: an interview with Juan Pablo Villalobos

Juan Pablo gets acquainted with the Liberian Pygmy Hippos at London Zoo. Photo by Rita Platt

Mexican writer Juan Pablo Villalobos has had quite a year. His first novel Down the Rabbit Hole has been translated into English, French, German, Portuguese and Hungarian, and nominated for 2011’s Guardian First Book Award. Published in the UK by innovative independent press And Other Stories, Adam Thirlwell describes the novel in his introduction as ‘a miniature high-speed experiment with perspective … a deliberate, wild attack on the conventions of literature.’ The Literateur caught up with Juan Pablo in Bloomsbury to talk about language, childhood, drug barons and, perhaps inevitably, hippos.


Interview by Dan Eltringham


The Literateur: Let’s start with the title: it’s an evocative one for Anglophone readers, and I’d like to unpack the resonances a little. ‘Tochtli’ [the book’s young narrator] means ‘rabbit’ in Nahuatl [Aztec language], neatly making the connection with Alice in Wonderland, also concerned with a parallel world and childhood perception. How do you see, then, the relationship between the rabbit hole and Mexico? Is it an alternative mirror image, in the way of Through the Looking Glass?

Juan Pablo Villalobos: In Spanish the title is ‘Party in the Lair’ (Fiesta en La Madriguera), something like that, literally. So when Rosalind the translator and the guys at And Other Stories suggested the title Down the Rabbit Hole, my first reaction was, why? Where’s the party? They explained to me that there was this parallelism with Alice in Wonderland, and Tochtli’s a rabbit, and then I started to think… I don’t know if there’s an influence of that book (Alice) on my novel, but I love the book. I started to think that it’s a good idea, because maybe British readers have this connection, and it must be attractive to them.

And yeah, it’s a claustrophobic world, and a trapped world, that in some ways has some relations with Alice in Wonderland, I think. And this style of narrating with some absurd connections between things that seem like they are so far away, but you can connect them, like the French with the Samurais with Mexico with the Liberian Pygmy Hippos – all this stuff together, it’s something like surreal.

Click the jacket image to read The Literateur’s review of Down the Rabbit Hole


TL: I want to ask about narrative method, based on a point Nick Lezard makes in his Guardian review of Down the Rabbit Hole. He notes that certain recent novels – the example he gives is Emma Donoghue’s Room – build themselves around a young narrator who is, as Tochtli would say, ‘precocious’. Usually this manifests itself as a precocious knowledge of words, and in many cases the attempt results in ‘the slipping of authorial control, the fumbling of register’; a failure of consistency with what they ‘would’ and ‘wouldn’t’ know. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close might be another such example. This doesn’t occur with Rabbit Hole because, one might argue, the very point is in Tochtli’s misuse or over-application of the complex words he does know.

What is Rabbit Hole doing, or how does it enact your ideas about, the relationship between language and the ways it can both constrain and give freedom to perception in narrative?

JPV: When I started to write the novel I had I think like 90 percent of the plot defined, I was really sure about what I was going to tell. But I wasn’t sure about the tone, about the voice. Then I started to write from Mazatzin’s perspective, who’s the professor, and from Yolcaut’s perspective, and I wasn’t happy. Suddenly it came to me in this magic moment the first sentence of the novel, ‘Some people say I’m precocious’. In Spanish it’s different, because I don’t use the word ‘precoz’ (‘precocious’); I use ‘adelantado’ (‘advanced’). In all the translations I have read they use the word ‘precocious’ and not ‘adelantado’, because it wouldn’t work that way in other languages. I thought that in this sentence was all the tone and the spirit of that voice; then I tried to be convincing and worked a lot correcting it. I wrote the novel in five months, and I kept correcting it for two years, every sentence and every word, and doing apparently simple things, like after a sentence with some difficulties [of consistency] saying, oh, that’s what Youcault told me, so he’s [Tochtli’s] repeating things.


TL: You were correcting it so you could explain everything that was there in Tochtli’s vocabulary?

I work a lot with the music of the voice, and that’s why [it was important] to keep repeating all the time, ‘Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus’, ‘Liberian Pygmy hippopotamus’, ‘Liberian Pygmy hippopotamus’

JPV: Yeah, he’s repeating movies, he’s repeating the things that the adults around him are saying, he is reading the dictionary and applying these words, sometimes incorrectly, sometimes correctly, and I just wanted to build this language building, let’s say. Not thinking about the truth, or thinking about which kind of boy, at what age, would talk like that. It was more that I wanted to create a world, and then to be, it’s not honest, it’s more…coherent with that, trying not to fail in that commitment.


TL: Yeah, I found this quote by the Mexican writer Juan Villoro. He says, ‘la ficción no trabaja con la mentira sino con lo inverificable’ (‘fiction doesn’t work with a lie but with the unverifiable’) and the writer doesn’t aspire to falsify but ‘ser ciertas de otro modo, a construir una segunda realidad’(‘to be sure in a different way, to build a second reality’). That seems to me applicable to your book…

JPV: Yeah, I agree. I wasn’t worrying about realism, you know? As a writer you create the rules, you say, this is my world and I’m going to play with these rules. And I think the reader enters this world and then you have to walk with him across the pages so he’s never like, oh, what’s happening here?


TL: Do you also have a sense that that is manifested on a more structural level, and not just in terms of words he knows and doesn’t know?

JPV: Yes of course, it has to be with a view of how I perceive literature, and life, of course.

I wanted to build this language building…I wanted to create a world


TL: I remember reading in I think El Universal this quote by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: ‘Mis primeros libros no son sobre Colombia porque no entendía mi país y sentía que no podía escribir sobre él. Fue gracias a vivir fuera, a la distancia y al tiempo que pude escribir sobre él.’ (‘My first books weren’t about Colombia because I didn’t understand my country and I felt that I couldn’t write about it. It was thanks to living elsewhere, with distance and time, that I could write about it.’)

You lived in Barcelona for eight years, now Brazil and – correct me if I’m wrong – Down the Rabbit Hole could be said to be a product of no longer living in Mexico. In what way does a certain distance alter the way you see a place, and change the way you are able to write about it?

JPV:  Yes, it’s like that. When I started to write the novel I had [been] I think three years outside Mexico, and the novel for me it’s like a, how to do you say, a ‘reflexión’?


TL: Thought process?

JPV: Yeah, a process of thinking. How do you perceive Mexico after some time living outside? Because your perspective changes, and it’s true, I agree with Juan Gabriel Vásquez because your vision of the country changes. Suddenly you understand some things, and suddenly some things you were doing when you lived there seem really horrible, and you take this distance from the reality. Then when you go there on holiday, or when you talk with your family and friends you have these reactions like, come on, why? You know? It’s shocking.


TL: Can you give an example?

JVP: Well, in family relations, for example, we don’t talk clearly. If I speak to my mother and she has to say something to say to me, she doesn’t say it, she’s like ‘well, because, you know, we are in a difficult time, because maybe’…you know? What’s happening? Just tell me!


TL: So it’s language, again.

JPV: Yeah, it’s language. And I think the novel, in my own personal view, is an exercise in the way Mexicans think about Mexico after we leave.


TL: Do you feel that that gaining of perspective from being farther away is kind of the opposite of Tochtli’s lack of perspective?

JPV: Yeah, and then you can play with that, you know? Doing the opposite. But it’s true, I hadn’t thought like that, but it’s true.

I have to find a voice, a tone, a perspective… Tochtli’s voice is the reason why the book is being translated

TL: Vásquez’s book on Colombia’s narco cartels (El Rudio de Las Cosas al Caer – The Sound of Things Falling) is about Colombia in the 90s, giving him temporal distance as well as geographical. Rabbit Hole in a way treats Mexico’s narco-violence quite directly (although because channelled through the restrictions of Tochtli’s perspective in a way not directly at all), and I’d like to hear your take on Calderon’s drugs war, and on how much you see Rabbit Hole as a formal antidote to the spate of pulpy narcoliteratura that surround and feed off the violence?

JPV: I wasn’t thinking of writing a narco novel when I started. I first thought of writing about the narcos when I thought: if I create a character, a child who wants a Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus and can have it, who would that be? And maybe twenty years ago it would be the son of a politician, the son of a deputy, or the son of a governor. At that time – 2005, 2006, when I started to write the novel – it was the beginning of all this escalation of violence in Mexico. And obviously this narco culture exists from I think the 70s and 80s, and I started to write because of that.

Sometimes my novel in the bookshops is surrounded by all these other narco novels. I understand that, it’s normal, at the first reading it [seems like] a narco novel. But I think that really it’s a [rite of] passage novel. It’s about learning to deal with reality, and about the loss of innocence. In the beginning I wanted to write about learning the exercise of power. How do you learn the use of power? When you are a child you experiment with how much power you have through your wishes, and you discover it through your parents. It’s a very simple but I think symbolic way to understand the use of power. This boy, who is the son of this drug baron, is having this terrible experience with power, because he can have everything.  He understands that his father can do everything, always says, ‘I can get it’.

In Spanish it’s stronger, ‘Youcault siempre puede’ (‘Youcault always can’). I keep repeating that sentence because it’s like a mantra, the essence of the book.


TL:You know Vásquez’s book also includes a private zoo, and a Hippopotamos that’s fetched from very far away…

JPV: When I presented the book in Barcelona two years ago, a Colombian journalist said to me, ‘ah, you wrote about hippos because of Pablo Escobar’s hippos?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’, and he explained to me that Pablo Esobar [Colombian drug baron] had these hippos that ran away when he was killed, and now they have this terrible health problem in that region because the hippos are free and killing people…I didn’t know, I didn’t.


TL: There’s an essay to be written on hippos in Latin American literature…This next question is perhaps going to overlap with the previous one, but we’ll see how it goes. How does your method of rendering violence, in a literary sense via Tochtli’s blankly innocent descriptions of ways of ‘making corpses’, work to deflate or satirise the obsession with violence in narcoliteratura and narco culture? Or is it doing something else?

JPV: No, I was trying to work with or through humour. Which is difficult, because you never know if you are reaching the objective, or if you’re failing terribly and nobody will laugh. I read a lot of of humouristic literature and I like the humouristic way of understanding life and understanding reality, to satirise and criticise the power and the politicans. Most of the time [when] readers or spectators of film or other kinds of art are faced with some humouristic work, they’re like, oh, it’s funny. Well yeah, it’s funny, but it’s more than funny. It’s another way to approach knowledge. Another approach to reality, to experience of life. So in the tone of Tochtli’s voice I was always thinking of that effect.

At the beginning I thought that maybe it was not that correct to use that tone to narrate those kinds of things, like talking about dead bodies and how you can kill somebody. And most of the time in narco novels these issues are treated very seriously.


TL: Except perhaps they’re repeated so many times they lose their meaning, I don’t know.

JPV: Yeah, maybe. Literature is about language for me, I work with words, and I can’t imagine working with a transparent style, you know? Like, ‘Salió de casa, y caminó hasta la esquina. Cruzó la calle,  y miró al cielo, pensando…’(‘He left the house and walked to the corner. He crossed the street, looked at the sky, thinking…’). I can’t. I have to find a voice, a tone, a perspective. I think Tochtli’s voice is the reason why the book is being translated and has been, in the case of Great Britain, well-received.

It’s about learning to deal with reality, and about the loss of innocence…[Tochtli] is having this terrible experience with power, because he can have everything


TL: So how do you feel that Rosalind (the UK translator) did with the voice? Is it quite different to the Spanish?

JPV: I like it a lot, I think it’s great. It’s different, obviously. I read the Portugese translation, which is great, and the French translation, which is a really good one too. They are different books. Sometimes translators have to make decisions – [to] work with this word, ‘precocious’ instead of ‘adelantado’. In the case of Portugese it was this huge discussion about using ‘pulcro’, which is the last of the five words [that Tochtli knows]. In English it’s ‘immaculate’. The translator wanted to use ‘impecável’, but ‘pulcro’ exists in Portugese. I said, but why don’t you use ‘pulcro’, it’s the same? [they said] No no, the meaning is different, but it’s the sound of the word I am concerned with. I work a lot with the music of the voice, and that’s why [it was important] to keep repeating all the time, ‘Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus’, ‘Liberian Pygmy hippopotamus’, ‘Liberian Pygmy hippopotamus’.


TL: Did you find you had a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, a lot of going in between with the translators over individual words, a lot of emails exchanged? Or did you just let them get on with it?

JPV: It depends on the translator. For example the German and the Dutch translators, suddenly the translation was ready, and I was like, huh? With Rosalind we had a lot of contact, which was very nice, because she is really observant, she detected some issues and problems that I hadn’t noticed. It was nice as a writer to experiment like this – I believe that the best readers of novels are the translators.


TL: And working with And Other Stories, how was that?

JPV: I have an international rights contract with my Spanish publisher and they received an offer from And Other Stories. From the beginning it was really great to get involved [with And Other Stories] because it’s a small project, about translation, and in a country, in a language that translates so little. They are really amazing. The love for literature and for books, you can feel it still in this project. It’s not like when I go with other huge and big publishers, when you feel this literary system, working. Here I have this impression when I come to Great Britain that we are working in a project where all the people involved love books, love literature, and that we’re doing this because of that.

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