Juan Pablo Villalobos (third from left) on stage at the EIBF 2011

Have you heard of And Other Stories?

If not, I think you soon will, particularly on the strength of their first title, which was launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this week. It is such a strong one because it was chosen by reading groups for translation and publication. An original publishing model and one which is set to continue. More details  here.

The process obviously works  because Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos has been longlisted for the Guardian First Novel Award and both it and the second title from And Other Stories, Clemens Meyer’s All The Lights are in the running for Edinburgh Book Festival’s own Newton First Book Award.  It will be interesting to see how that plays out seeing as that prize is awarded through public vote and the books aren’t on general release until 1st September.  They are, however, available in the EIBF bookshop and I made a beeline for them both when I visited last Saturday.

I read Down the Rabbit Hole in one sitting on Sunday.  This is easily done because it’s only 70 pages long but even so it’s a quick 70 pages because once you realise what is going on, you are chilled, horrified and,  like a rabbit trapped in he headlights, rooted to the spot until the end.   Perfect reading for those in search of a novella that packs a punch as strong as Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea.

While child narrators are in vogue, though sometimes cloying with their false innocence, that’s not the case here.  Tochtli (whose name means rabbit) subverts all expectations from the off.

Some people say I’m precocious.  They say it mainly because they think I know difficult words for a little boy.  Some of the difficult words I know are: sordid, disastrous, immaculate, pathetic and devastating. …. But I don’t think I’m precocious.  What happens is I have a trick, like magicians who pull rabbits out of hats, except I pull words out of the dictionary.  Every night before I go to sleep I read the dictionary.  My memory which is really good, practically devastating, does the rest. 

It emerges that Tochtli is the son of a drug baron.  He lives with his father, Yocault (meaning rattlesnake) and his cohorts in a palace he is not allowed to leave (for obvious reasons) though his every whim is catered for.  Yet he is not protected.  Desensitisation to the realities of his father’s profession has already begun.

I know all this from a game I play with Yocault. It’s a question and answer game. One person says a number of bullets in a part of the body and the other answers: alive, corpse or too early to tell.

“One bullet in the heart”.

“Corpse”.

“Thirty bullets in the little toenail of the left foot.”

“Alive”.

“Two bullets in the pancreas”.

“Too early to tell.”

Tochtli is so isolated that he is in no position to question the ammorality of the world in which he lives.  This results in a distinctive narrative voice: innocent, deadpan, damaged.  It is chilling, perhaps even to use Tochtli’s favourite adjective, devastating. For Tochtli is not entirely powerless and he is definitely precocious.  He has all the material possessions he needs but he wants another pet. He already has a private zoo of lions and tigers.  Now he decides he wants a Liberian pigmy hippopotamus.  It is an absurd whim which leads to an adventure outwith the palace walls – a welcome respite – although it results in further damage to the innocent and serves as a foregleam of the man Tochtli will become.

Villalobos claimed there is no predetermined outcome for Tochtli.  I’m not so sure. 

I am sure that the   Down the Rabbit Hole gets my vote in the Newton Book Award …. Smile, Juan Pablo, smile!

 

 

 

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