CategoryVillalobos Juan Pablo

A Mexican selection for July

July means Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month hosted by Stu. I’ve been joining in since 2016, but this year I thought I’d have a theme. Since I started reading translated fiction regularly, some of my favourite books have come from Mexico. I’ve found a few unread Mexican books at home, so they’re what I’m planning to concentrate on this month.

To start things off, though, here’s a look back on some Mexican highlights from past years of the blog…

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (tr. Lisa Dillman). Possibly my favourite of all Mexican novels that I’ve read. A crossing over the Mexico-US border becomes a literal descent into the underworld, in a vivid tale of blurred boundaries and thresholds.

Mildew by Paulette Jonguitud (tr. the author). A novel that breaks down the distinction between memory and reality, imagination and physical space. Mildew starts to grow over Constanza’s body on the day before her daughter’s wedding – does she have control over the story she’s telling?

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (tr. Natasha Wimmer). The tale of a cosmic tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, spliced with accounts of a world being formed in the cauldron of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos (tr. Rosalind Harvey). My introduction to Mexican fiction (and one of the key books introducing me to contemporary translated fiction in general). A drug baron’s son gets his wish to travel to Liberia for a pet hippo – and his perspective transforms what we understand.

The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza (tr. Sarah Booker). More blurred boundaries in a story of mysterious visitors that treats social marginalisation as contagious.

Well, looking those up has got me excited for reading more… Do you have any favourite Mexican books?

Three novellas: Kaufman, Finley, Villalobos

Andrew Kaufman, The Tiny Wife (2010)
Toiya Kristen Finley, The Legend of False Dreaming (2011)
Juan Pablo Villalobos, Down the Rabbit Hole (2010/1) 

If you lost part of yourself, what would you become? What if you didn’t even know what you had to lose? Andrew Kaufman’s novella The Tiny Wife (now given a UK edition – a beautiful little hardback – by The Friday Project) begins with a bank robbery where the thief demands, not money, but that each person in the bank give him a possession of great sentimental value to them. By taking these items, the thief  explains, he is also taking more than half of each person’s soul: ‘This will have strange and bizarre consequences in your lives,’ he warns, ‘learn how to grow them back, or you will die’ (p. 9).

Strange things do indeed happen to the victims of the theft. For example, one woman’s tattoo of a lion comes to life and chases her relentlessly. The bank’s assistant manager just has to imagine being underwater in his office, and it comes to be. Stacey Hinterland (whose husband David is our narrator) begins to shrink with strict quadratic progression; the very mathematics which has been one of Stacey’s touchstones for navigating life may now prove to be her undoing.

The Tiny Wife works as well as it does because there’s a matter-of-fact quality to its telling, which both provides an effective contrast to the fantastical happenings, and grounds them; what might have come across as overly whimsical instead becomes real, and carries the dramatic weight of a problem to be solved. The process of counteracting the effects of the theft is also one of overcoming whatever’s holding the victims back in their lives; we see several characters manage to do so (though others fail), and it’s affectingly done by Kaufman.

***

The characters in The Tiny Wife lost parts of their selves in a single event, but it’s the continual harshness of her life that has taken its toll on Rue, the protagonist of Toiya Kristen Finley’s The Legend of False Dreaming (published by Pendragon Press). In the midst of hitchhiking home, Rue (down to the last of her money, and with no wish to make payment in another way) is abandoned in Bronson, a run-down, worn-out town in the south of New York State where the locals are suspicious of outsiders and a strange fog keeps people from leaving. A boy named Mack is the only person to show any consideration towards Rue; buts he is suspicious of his intentions, and wants nothing more than to find her way home.

If there’s a lightness to the tone of The Tiny Wife (more in the way it’s told rather than what it tells), The Legend of False Dreaming is, in contrast, darker and dense with sensation. Finley conveys the atmosphere of Bronson through constant reference to the town’s sights, smells and tastes; the cumulative effect of these is to underline how hard it is to escape this place, how difficult to ignore where you are. For that’s the kind of place Bronson is: a once-prosperous industrial town that’s now going nowhere and has left its people with nowhere to go. This finds an echo in the life of Rue, who was trapped by the violent relationship she had with her father (still is trapped, in a way, by what that made her as a person), and now hopes to rescue her brother Bobby from their father’s violence.

As in The Tiny Wife, there are supernatural elements in Finley’s novella; and they, too, are treated matter-of-factly. But the effect is different: strangeness intrudes on the world of Kaufman’s book, and he makes it normal; the magic in The Legend of False Dreaming feels as though it’s already part of the book’s world, and is not wondered at because there’s no room left in that world for wonder. The fantastic elements of Finley’s tale represent Rue’s anger and Bronson’s secret shame; they add another layer to a very satisfying read.

***

There’s nothing fantastical in Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole (now given its first English-language publication as one of the launch titles from And Other Stories), but its protagonist is rather like a Wonderland inhabitant, in that he is trapped by the limitations of his own perspective, and is not even aware that those limitations exist. Young Tochtli is the son of a Mexican drug baron, who lives happily in his father Yolcaut’s palace, with his own private zoo, his tutor Maztazin, and a few other staff. The only people Tochtli knows are those who live in or visit the palace; what he wants most of all at the moment is a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus for hor his menagerie – and what Tochtli wants, he shall have.

Life in Yolcaut’s palace is, of course, all that Tochtli has ever known; this leads him to say things which come across to us as rather chilling, such as: ‘One of the things I’ve learned from Yolcaut is that sometimes people don’t turn into corpses with just one bullet’ (p. 8). But Tochtli’s narration is also bitterly poignant at times, when it shows up just how little he really knows. Take the opening of Down the Rabbit Hole, for instance:

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. (p. 3).

Tochtli does indeed know those five words, and uses them repeatedly throughout the book. But, as the pages go by, it becomes less clear whether he really knows what they mean; they start to feel more like empty placeholders that emphasise the boy’s ignorance (I should add that Rosalind Harvey’s translation is excellent, really bringing the protagonist to life through his voice). There’s also an irony in Tochtli’s saying that he thinks he’s ‘precocious…in discovering secrets’ (p. 21), and his repeated assertion that ‘gangs are about not hiding things and about seeing the truth’ (p.47), because it’s quite clear from the events of the plot that Tochtli is wrong on both counts.

It takes some effort to reach Tochtli, because his subjectivity is so strong; there’s also a leap to be made between each of the book’s three chapters (the middle section, where Tochtli, Yolcaut, and Maztazin travel to Liberia under false names in search of a pygmy hippopotamus, is particularly striking; Tochtli never indicates directly who has taken on which name, and I was surprised at how effective this simple technique turned out to be at disorienting the reader). Yet it’s precisely this which makes Down the Rabbit Hole so rewarding; the book bodes well for both its author’s career, and its UK publisher’s future titles.

***

Reviews elsewhere
Of The Tiny Wife: Read Between the Lines; The Book Whisperer; Gaskella.
Of Down the Rabbit Hole: Winstonsdad; Nicholas Lezard for The Guardian; Lucy Popescu for The Independent.

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