Event report: Juan Pablo Villalobos at the London Review Bookshop

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed going to the World Literature Series of events at the London Review Bookshop is the serendipity of learning about something I don’t know that well, which then turns out to be fascinating (so far, I’ve heard talks on Japanese book design and the Thousand and One Nights). Still, it is also nice to have the reference points of a more familiar subject, which is what I had for the latest event.

The evening was hosted by the excellent And Other Stories press, as publisher Stefan Tobler interviewed Juan Pablo Villalobos, the Mexican author of Down the Rabbit Hole (which I reviewed here) and Quesadillas (which I reviewed here). We began with Villalobos reading from the opening of Quesadillas, first in Spanish (cue laughter from the Spanish-speakers in the audience and those of us who’d already read the book in English and know what the beginning is like), then English (cue laughter from everyone else). Tobler then read from another And Other Stories title, Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s All Dogs are Blue (which I reviewed here), which Villalobos has translated into Spanish from the original Portugese. Both readings underlined how much these books are spoken texts.

The interview section started with Villalobos’s experience of translating All Dogs are Blue. The author said that he viewed translation as responding to an instinct to share a book you love with other readers (he’d been introduced to the book by Tobler, and immediately wanted to translate it for a Spanish-speaking audience). Thinking about it, I suspect that I’m responding to a similar instinct when I write about books.

I’m always interested to hear about the different kinds of choices that translators have to make. For Villalobos, there was the issue of slang; he ended up producing two versions, one Spanish, one Mexican. He also made  appoint of leaving in a lot of the Brazilian words, as he wanted the reader to remember that this was a Brazilian book. Villalobos suggested that the power of All Dogs are Blue lay in its imperfections, and I think that’s very true; the rhythm, flow and idiosyncracies of its language draw you into the narrator’s world.

Turning to Villalobos’s own work, he has been widely translated himself: Down the Rabbit Hole has been translated into fifteen languages, Quesadillas into eight. Villalobos commented that he saw similarities between All Dogs are Blue and Down the Rabbit Hole in terms of their tone and humour; I think there’s something in that, and I might add to that list the importance of the protagonists’ limited perspectives.

Villalobos said that the style of Quesadillas was meant to parody the rhetoric of politicians. He also talked about it being an ‘open’ book, all loose ends and a feeling of escape, in contrast with the more ‘closed’ Down the Rabbit Hole. I can see where he’s coming from with both of those points, but now I want to re-read the books to see what else I can find. And I’d say that an author event that leaves me wanting to revisit books that I’ve previously enjoyed is a very good event indeed. (Even better if it involves a chance to meet the author and get a book signed…)

quesadillas

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.