Juan Pablo Villalobos: Down the Rabbit Hole We Go
Juan Pablo Villalobos is sorry that his novel Down the Rabbit Hole narrowly didn’t win the Guardian First Book Award. Tochtli, his precocious child narrator, might find this devastating. Or disastrous. And probably a bit pathetic too, since Tochtli doesn’t have much time for ‘educated people who know lots and lots about books, but nothing at all about life’.
Villalobos is more sanguine, but he’s sorry because he feels it would have been a victory for translated literature in the UK. Despite that, he’s pleased that the book has been received so well here. Talking to readers at the awards ceremony and realising that a book written about Mexico, by a Mexican, had touched people in Edinburgh and Bristol was strange, and quite moving.
Sitting on a cracked leather armchair in the dusty lounge of his hotel in Bloomsbury, Villalobos talked about being translated, finding Tochtli’s voice, black humour, and why legalisation might be the answer to Mexico’s narco wars.
> You say you don’t read while you’re writing. Is that so the voice isn’t corrupted? In Down the Rabbit Hole Tochtli’s voice is so strong.
Yes. It’s like a superstition. When I find the voice, I’m scared that I might lose it if I read something else similar, or something very different. Then I start doubting if the voice I’ve found is really what I want after all.
In writing Down the Rabbit Hole, at first, I was seduced by writing from Mazatzin, the tutor’s perspective. I tried that, and then I tried Yolcaut, the father’s, voice. After that, I tried the third person, but I didn’t like that either.
Then the first sentence of the book, ‘Some people think I’m precocious’ came to me. All the spirit of the novel is there in that sentence. That was it. In the process of writing and correcting, only that first sentence of the book stayed untouched.
> How have you found the process of being translated?
It’s amazing. When I exchanged emails with Rosalind Harvey, the English translator, it made me think of things that I didn’t realise when I wrote the novel. I believe that the translator is the best reader you have; the most careful reader. Rosalind, in particular, has created a beautiful translation in English.
> You sent the book to the Spanish publisher, Anagrama, as an unsolicited manuscript; have you been surprised by its success?
It’s been a surprise not just for me, but for my publisher. I don’t have an agent; I don’t believe in agents (which isn’t to say that I won’t get one in future!) The first surprise was that the publisher actually read the manuscript! After it was published, when the translations began to come in, it was incredible; we weren’t expecting anything like that. Now we have thirteen translations.
> You’ve said you’ve been influenced by English literature, particularly in the book’s black humour?
Yes, I’ve been surprised by how well the book has been received in Britain, but not that surprised. There’s a connection between Mexican dark humour and the British tradition. Our cultures are very different but we share something. We share an ability to laugh at the things you shouldn’t laugh at.
> In Britain, we’re bad at translating books from other countries. Only 3% of the books published here are translations.
Translation is about trying to understand the other, it’s about curiosity. That such a small number of the books published in America and Britain are translations is terrible. Not terrible, horrible. I don’t know why it is. I don’t think Britain is culturally closed, I think it’s a problem in the industry, not in British society.
I think we, as Latin American writers, have a richness. Growing up, I read not just British and American literature, but Japanese, French, Hungarian. We don’t just have our own, very strong tradition of Spanish literature, we have other influences too.
> What other Latin American writers should we be translating?
It’s a good question. The great names are being translated. People like Roberto Bolano, Ricardo Piglia. César Aira, the great Argentinian writer, has been translated too. In Mexico, we have this wonderful writer, Daniel Sada, who died only a few weeks ago. One of his books is being published in translation in the US next year.
> You say you’re writing another book at the moment?
Yes, I’ve just finished a first draft, but I revise a lot. I wrote Down the Rabbit Hole in six months, but I corrected it for three years. I’m obsessive about every word. I want to find the right language, the right tone, the right way of saying things. That means a lot of work.
With this book, though, the process has been different. I’ve been working on it for two years, but I think this version is the one. I’m hoping to send it to the publisher in the next few months.
It’s about a family too, but it’s a huge family, and the focus is on the teenagers, not on childhood. It’s also about class and the terrible inequity in Mexico. What fascinates me is telling a political story through the intimate world of a family. For me, all literature is political in some way, but literature has to approach politics indirectly.
> What do you think about Mexico’s current problems? Is the situation likely to improve?
It’s a complex problem. Some of the origins are domestic. Our justice system has failed; we have terrible inequality and a lack of opportunity. But many of our issues are foreign. The US, our neighbour, is our best client. If Mexico ‘wins’ the war on drugs, it will only go to Honduras, or to Cuba. We should think seriously about legalisation. People say that would cause problems, but the situation now isn’t working. We need to think differently about the issue, with imagination.