The Short Version: Tochtli is a young boy living out his every whim in a palace in Mexico. His father is a drug baron, powerful and rich – hence the palace, the guns, the tiger in the yard, etc. But Tochtli doesn’t understand most of this – at least, not at first…
The Review: When is a novel not a novel? When does it become a novella? What’s the difference, really, between the two? I mean, this “novel” clocks in at under 75 pages – but it is no novella: so says the cover, for one thing. Does it have to do with the weight of a particular story? The psychic impact? A moveable yardstick, to be certain, but also a notable – an inescapable – one. If that’s the case, I buy it: this is a novel. It’s almost surprising, the way the weight of this one sneaks up on you.
We see the story from the point of view of young Tochtli, son of a wealthy Mexican drug baron – and he begins the story by telling us that he has been called precocious. He doesn’t see it, of course, but so he has been told. Throughout the rest of the story, we learn several other things that the young boy has been told: that he can have whatever he wants (including a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus) and that if he cries or shows weakness, then he is a “faggot”.
Hearing that word – still so strangely harsh, even compared to nearly any other curse or epithet – from the ‘mouth’ of a young boy is… it’s perhaps the strongest character choice in the novel. Tochtli uses plenty of other powerful words – not curses, but adult words, words that seem so strange coming from the mouth of a young boy – throughout the novel and he tells the reader that he goes to bed at night with the dictionary in order to learn more words. So the fact that that word pops up so often, sounding not as though he learned it from the dictionary but rather from hearing it bandied about… it’s the perfect lesson on how children pick up what they hear and see their elders doing. There’s another, slightly more gimmicky (although also entirely logical to the mind of a seven-year-old) version of this, when Tochtli decides to play mute for an extended period of time – he learned it from the compound’s deaf-mute servant, from samurai in movies.
There’s a whole lot packed into this tiny novel – so much that you could really spend as much time unpacking it as it take to read it. When Tochtli is promised a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, he begins to believe that he’ll never actually get it – but when, under fake Honduran passports, he and his father and his father’s right-hand man go on a trip to Liberia, the story takes an almost picaresque turn. The idea of these men – now called by different names, an edict to which Tochtli sticks like glue – hunting these adorable little creatures in order to take one back to Mexico for Tochtli is… well, I genuinely don’t know why it seems so strange, so almost otherworldly. There are plenty of rich people who do exactly that – they have people who go out and collect for them whatever they desire, money is no object (hell, Jeff Bezos just personally bought an entire newspaper). But perhaps seeing it through the eyes of a young boy who doesn’t really know that the world is any different is what’s so strange. It all seems so, well, logical to him.
This makes the third and final section/chapter of the book hit even harder. Tochtli, whether or not he’s ready, is going to have to grow up. Things begin to change around the compound and with his father – betrayal, the arrival of new people, the disappearance of old people – and there’s a strange but undeniably powerful moment (strange through Tochtli’s eyes, not at all for the reader) just before the end when Yolcaut (Tochtli’s father) sort of welcomes him into adulthood in a very distinct, no-going-back kind of way. And when he tells Tochtli that one day he will have to do for Yolcaut what the samurai did for each other in the film they just watched – and it only barely registers for the young man – I felt my breathing get a little tense. Villalobos makes the excellent decision of not ending the book there, either, but continuing on just a little bit further and showing that Tochtli is still, no matter how you slice it, a young boy. His joy in the last pages – and the beautifully potent final sentences – is…. it’s so many things. It’s an elegy for being that naïve, it’s a remembrance of how fun it was to be a kid, it’s a moving (albeit also kind of twisted) example of the lengths to which a father will go in order to make his son happy.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The novel started and I couldn’t fathom that its short word-count would add up to much at all. Tochtli’s voice is simple, despite its precociousness, and a reader could be forgiven for finding themselves wondering about the mysteries happening off-stage while Tochtli is off talking about his hats. But as with any young child, if you pay a little more attention, you’ll see that they’re experiencing the world in ways wholly different from you and I – ways that reveal so much more than is readily apparent. It’s that that makes Villalobos’ book so successful and so ultimately powerful, despite its diminutive stature.
Also, how terrific is the front cover illustration of the young boy with the hats and the samurai sword riding a pygmy hippo? Adorable.