Saturday, December 29, 2012

Children ("Down the Rabbit Hole" by Juan Pablo Villalobos)

In 2010, Emma Donoghue's novel Room caused a minor sensation among critics and readers alike--by their own admissions, neither group had ever really read anything like it. The story of a mother and son kept imprisoned in an isolated room by a kidnapper known only as Old Nick, the story is told from the point of view of the child, his situation unclear at first. He speaks as you'd expect all five year-olds to speak, in riddles and personifcations that are less about adolescent confusion and just simply about an immature mindset, one built half on misunderstandings about the world--referring to objects as though they were living proper nouns--and half on his mother's abstract ways of explaining away their god-awful situation. Had Donoghue written the novel from any other other perspective--the mother's, Old Nick's, even a detached and dispassionate third-person--Room would have lost the uniqueness and voice that led it to become such a bestseller in the first place.

Juan Pablo Villalobos employs the same technique in Down the Rabbit Hole, his first novel. And while Villalobos had quite a few impediments to gaining the same amount of success and popularity as Donoghue--he didn't have an established readership or credibility with critics, his novel came in at only 70 pages, and it was first published in Spain, meaning the time spent on translations caused it to be published after Donoghue's novel, even though it appeared in print the very same year--he manages to use the technique much more effectively than Donoghue.

Told from the point of view of Tochtli, a nine year-old Mexican boy, Down the Rabbit Hole starts in much the same way as Room: from the little information we are given outright, we know that our narrator is being kept in seclusion by an older man whose identity is sketchy at first; he follows a strict routine within the boundaries of his home; his mind is allowed to run free with fantasy; and the outside world, available only through a television set, is kept far away. The boy's one persistent dream is to have his very own Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, and he dreams of this little achievement between lessons with his teacher--Mazatzin--and repeated viewings of the same samurai films. As he does, we slowly piece together the reasons behind his seclusion--his father is a violent drug kingpin--and how his father's depravity--a shed full of loaded guns, a running menagerie of prostitutes, violent beheadings, bribing government officials--is treated as little more than the curious eccentricities of a dad who is otherwise doting and compassionate towards his son.

Unlike Donoghue's novel, Down the Rabbit Hole is short--a decision that keeps the first-person technique fresh. In Room, which clocks in at almost 400 pages, the first-person point-of-view becomes tiresome after a while; after all, Donoghue is keeping her readers perpetually trapped in the simplified world of an adolescent. Villalobos, on the other hand, gives us just enough of Tochtli to build a clear, coherent, and interesting story before it becomes redundant and frustrating. By the time the novel closes, we've come to understand Tochtli's life--and the life of his father--seen him pursue his hippo dream to its inevitable, disappointing failure, and been offered enough foreshadowing about what is to come--two taxidermied hippo heads, the significance of golden crowns, a samurai-film sacrifice--that we understand where the story is going without also having to be led there. Villalobos manages to use a literary technique long enough to craft a wonderful little story without the technique--and, in a sense, the narrator--overstaying its welcome.