2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Aside from the Borgesian idea of a book that details the literal present, there is not a Borgesian or magic realist moment in this recent novel from Latin America. Roberto Bolaño and Horacio Castellanos Moya have done a good job of eradicating the myth that literature from south of the border is solely populated by spirits and two hundred year old patriarchs, but another brand of fiction has cropped up in its place: narco-literature. Down the Rabbit Hole may qualify as such, though only in the sense that it takes place largely in the secluded palace of Yolcaut, Tochtli’s paranoid criminal-emperor father. Though this is the setting, and though there are mentions of violence, they are filtered through the lens of a small child who relays events in a simplistic manner, allowing the reader a glimpse into the life of a narco unburdened by the machismo voice of a typical narrator.

This is not to suggest that Down the Rabbit Hole lacks in machismo. There are few women in the book save for the “mute” servants and prostitutes who exist on the outskirts of Tochtli’s view. More than once Tochtli places male behavior into the simple polarities of macho and faggot. To be macho is to take things “like a man”; to cry at the sight of two animals being killed is to be a “faggot.” This dichotomy, effortlessly understood and accepted as law by a child, does not offend the reader as, they are constantly reminded, these are the thoughts of an unusual storyteller in an unusual situation. By employing a child to tell this story, Villalobos allows his readers to accept the violence, sex, and dirty dealings that exist on the periphery of Tochtli’s obsessions: hats (he has a vast collection), samurais, and Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses, which he longs to add to his personal zoo. Just as the reader is ready to accept these as the quirky, charming interests of a young boy, Tochtli reveals his other obsession: differing methods of turning people into corpses (he mostly admires the French for their guillotines). Tochtli’s narration gives the reader a view into an ugly world without the usual genre gimmicks of the narco-novel or police procedural. The effect is infinitely more unsettling.

I must admit I had reservations about Down the Rabbit Hole. I have tired of child narrators. This, however, is miles away from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Here we have a naive view of a terrifying world where few are trusted and everyone is a potential traitor; here we have innocence on the verge of corruption.

The slim number of pages aids in the success of the book; a longer version might have seen the concept grow tiresome. But no moment of the novel takes the reader out of its world and the rising action and denouement that might have felt tacked on to a lesser novel feel natural here. At just 70 pages, Down the Rabbit Hole strikes quick, leaving a strong impression.

2 November 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which is translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey and available from FSG.

This is a book I first heard about a while back when the innovative and amazing And Other Stories announced that they’d be bringing it out in the UK. Really glad that it found a U.S. publisher, and given FSG’s recent publications of Spanish-language literature—books by Andres Neuman, Alejandro Zambra, Roberto Bolaño—this fits right in.

Here’s the opening of Vince’s review:

Around the midpoint of Down the Rabbit Hole, the debut novel by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated by Rosalind Harvey, recently published by FSG, and not to be confused with the mystery novel by Peter Abrahams), the narrator, Tochtli, the young son of a Mexican drug tsar, states:

“Books don’t have anything in them about the present, only the past and the future. This is one of the biggest defects of books. Someone should invent a book that tells you what’s happening at this moment, as you read. It must be harder to write that sort of book than the futuristic ones that predict the future. That’s why they don’t exist.”

In a sense, Villalobos is trying to write that very book. All media coverage of Mexico is mired in reports of drug war violence, a subject that permeates Down the Rabbit Hole. That all of the characters have names derived from Nahuatl, an indigenous language, can be seen, perhaps, as a connection of these very contemporary events to the history of Mexico. One might justifiably say that violence, innocence, and corruption are the themes of the book, and, by extension, the themes of Mexico.

Click here to read the entire piece.

12 October 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The new issue of FSG’s Work in Progress weekly newsletter (which is maybe the best publisher newsletter out there), has an interview with Rosalind Harvey, co-translator with Anne McLean of Oblivion by Hector Abad and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas, and solo translator of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which just came out from FSG (and came out from And Other Stories last year).

Down the Rabbit Hole is fascinating for several reasons, not least because it’s told from the perspective of a child. How did that affect the experience of translating the book?

For me the voice is the most important aspect of translation (and literature in general, I think), whether it’s a child or an adult narrator. When the voice is clear and strong and believable enough to remain in your mind, that’s your starting point. I read Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but mainly I was just listening out for Tochtli’s voice and trying to recreate it in English. [. . .]

Are you generally a reader of books in translation, either from Spanish or from other languages? How do other books in translation inform your own work, if at all? Are there any translators you particularly admire?

I do read quite a lot in translation; I try to read books written in Spanish in the original, and translated books I have admired in the last year or so include All The Lights by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire, and a Swedish thriller called Blackwater by Kerstin Ekman, translated by Joan Tate. Obviously I admire Anne McLean a great deal and she taught me a lot about how to translate, and I also admire Suzanne Jill Levine for her creativity and humor (she has a great book about translating Cabrera Infante which I recommend), and the great Edith Grossman is incomparable.

It’s generally acknowledged that literature translated into English gets fairly bypassed by readers. Do you agree? What do you think can be done (or is already being done) to bring translations further toward the forefront? Why is doing so important?

Yes, it does happen but only because they aren’t given access to it! Things are looking up though—I know for a fact that there are interested and varied audiences for translation after having done three translation-related events this year in the UK, which were all very popular and elicited some really interesting responses. I think we need to translate and publish more of a range of writing: good literature is wonderful, but difficult or avant-garde work is not for everyone and so I’d like to see more Estonian chick lit, Indonesian thrillers or Bolivian erotica. People read that stuff as long as it’s good, it doesn’t matter where it’s from, so bring it on! As a reader I would say that reading translation is no more or less important than reading a literature, but as a translator I guess I say that reading translations can give you a broader vision of the world and of people and emotions, making you more aware of the huge differences but also similarities between people. Good literature from anywhere can do that.

On a related note, why is translation important to you, personally? What delights you about the work you do?

Translation is important to me as someone who’s always loved words, language, and wordplay in particular. I love punning, and playing around with words, and I always have ever since I learned to speak. When I was younger I want to be a writer, and translation is a form of writing. It is also often said that it’s the closest form of reading, and I love the chance my work gives me to really get inside a text, as well as getting inside a character’s head, and to be intimately involved with the creation of a book.

Here the complete interview here.

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