Juan Pablo Villalobos
First Sentence: Some people say I’m precocious.
Some people say this book is wonderful. I’d have to agree. It comes from new publishers And Other Stories and if the rest of their list is anywhere near as good as this I think I’ll be investigating further. The narrator is Tochtli, the ten-year old son of a drug lord who lives in a palace. Tochtli’s voice is a joy to read and even more authentic than Room ‘s narrator, though I will admit to enjoying Room. Tochtli’s interests include: hats, guillotines, Japan (samurai in particular) and most importantly, Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamuses. Like Room‘s narrator, Tochtli’s entire world is his enclosed environment, only in this book it is a palace, not a tiny room. Living in this palace has shaped Tochtli completely and he can even count how many people he has actually met. And not have to count very high at that. The reason I say Tochtli’s voice is more authentic than Jack’s in Room is simply because as a reader I feel I am better able to empathise with him. I’m not sure why I find it easier to feel empathy towards the son of a drug baron but there you go. (I am not, as far as I know, the son of a criminal.) It’s just that when he speaks of gangs, and gang culture, and the importance of being a macho man and everything that goes with it, the trust, the fear of being called a faggot, your heart can’t help but break just a little bit. This child knows no other life, no other set of morals, and because of this we can’t really hold him responsible for the life he is living. He is only a child and he is filled with the same wonder any ten-year old boy is:
I think the most enigmatic and mysterious thing in the world must be a Japanese mute.
Another reason his voice is so authentic stems from the words he uses. He reuses ‘big’ words over and over again and this is one of the reasons people think he is precocious. He speaks of making corpses with orifices made from bullets, instead of just saying shooting people. At the beginning of the books he lists some of the really big words he knows; sordid, pathetic, devastating, disastrous. These four words, and the frequency with which they are used says a great deal about Tochtli and the environment he is growing up in. This is a powerful book loaded with personality and is infinitely charming. I’m glad I took a chance on it and I look forward to reading more from And Other Stories…
* * * *
Last Sentence: On the day of the coronation, me and my dad will have a party.
Last Sentence explained: The book gets its name after an article written by Mazatzin entitled Down the King’s Rabbit Role. Mazatzin was Tochtli’s tutor and a family friend but has betrayed them by exposing what goes on behind the palace walls. The final scene in the book shows Tochtli putting the stuffed heads of Marie Antoinette of Austria and Louis XVI on his wall. These are the Liberian pygmy hippopotamuses which he finally gets, only for them to be killed before he can even get them home. That scene in particular typifies what is excellent about this book and gives a good example of Tochtli’s voice:
Then it turned out I’m not macho after all and I started to cry like a faggot. I also wet my pants[…] I wanted them to put eight bullets in my prostate to make me into a corpse. And I wanted the whole world to be extinct[…] When I calmed down, I had a really strange feeling in my chest. It was hot and it didn’t hurt, but it made me think I was the most pathetic person in the whole universe.
This book, like all truly great fiction, makes you look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes and really, what more can we ask for.