:: Article

Hat Tricks Out of a Dictionary

By Anna Aslanyan.


Down the Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos, tr. Rosalind Harvey, And Other Stories 2011

There are themes that cannot be written about in a straightforward manner. They are sometimes too big, sometimes too hackneyed, sometimes too monstrous for that. Wanting to write about Holocaust, Martin Amis knew he had to come up with something that would firmly put his book outside the existing accounts, no matter how heartfelt or well composed. Telling the story of a Nazi doctor backwards in Time’s Arrow did the trick. The life of Mexican drug dealers is no less horrific than that of WWII criminals, so turning to the subject, Juan Pablo Villalobos must have realised he was facing a certain challenge. His solution? To have Tochtli, the young son of a drug baron, the inhabitant of a palace guarded day and night, the owner of a vast collection of hats, narrate the book.

While child narrators are not a new phenomenon in literature, some of them are more trustworthy than others. Much as I like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I have never been convinced by Scout’s voice – a good storyteller, she sounds just like her grown-up creator. Tochtli’s vocabulary is also fairly rich for a pre-teen, but this is dealt with on page one as he declares: “I know maybe thirteen or fourteen people, and four of them say I’m precocious.” To live up to his reputation, the boy reads a dictionary every night before going to sleep. This confession makes the whole set-up plausible, and you don’t wince when Tochtli tells you his life is “a little bit sordid. Or pathetic.” The wincing stage comes later, when you learn that “severed heads have gone out of fashion” or are told, repeatedly, that “Gangs are about solidarity, protection and not hiding the truth from each other.” Then you are reminded that you are a faggot – machos, of course, don’t wince.

Humour is another useful device when it comes to describing indescribable, and here you have it in spades. When going abroad, the gangsters get fake Honduran passports and start calling themselves Franklin Gómez and Winston López; apparently, these are the most common names in Honduras, judging by the national football team, whose members range from Astor Henríquez to Milton Núñez. Their destination is Liberia, where they meet John Kennedy Johnson and Martin Luther King Taylor, which leads the narrator to conclude that “the Liberians really like naming themselves after murdered corpses.” Another person Tochtli is acquainted with, a slender long-legged girl who comes to the palace from time to time, never makes a sound and eats only salad, puzzles the boy as she and his dad constantly “disappear and then reappear, really mysterious.”

As an account of gang life, Down the Rabbit Hole (labelled a novel, but really a novella) is pretty sketchy compared to, say, Amexica, but the details are especially chilling because we know the narrator’s fingers hurt from playing on Playstation 3, he wants a pet Liberian pigmy hippopotamus and hides a miniature pistol under his samurai hat. Above all, language is everything here, language and the perception of things that people tend to lose with age. It is, indeed, fascinating to read Tochtli’s sentences and try to put yourself in his shoes: how did I first learn the definition of a third-world country? When did I find out that “you take cocaine with your nose and in secret, in the bathroom or inside a cupboard”? Chances are I was a bit older than Tochtli at the time. Going back to the narrator’s voice, putting all your eggs in the same basket is a risky business, but Villalobos and his English translator Rosalind Harvey manage it well. So powerful is this voice, I was hoping the glossary in the end would be a list of words Tochtli pulls out of his dictionary, like rabbits from a hat, and felt slightly disappointed to find only a handful of footnotes related to local traditions.

Apart from getting me into the linguistic mode, the book had another, more vicarious effect on me: it made me want to learn Spanish, all the better to enjoy Harvey’s translation. In fact, this is my idea of an ideal world, a place where you would able to be read any two versions of any book, an original and a translation, side by side, savouring the subtleties of the text. But then again, in an ideal world we probably wouldn’t have Tochtli roaming around an empty palace in a dressing gown and a samurai hat.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 26th, 2011.