The most memorable magic in Daniel Alarcon's engaging and illuminating new novel, "At Night We Walk in Circles," comes when his three main characters, all actors, perform on various stages in their impoverished but beautiful country.
Nelson, Henry and Patalarga are actors in a guerrilla theater company, performing the same satirical play again and again on a journey through the provinces of an unnamed Latin American country. Their "tour" has no set itinerary and their "theater" might be the living room of a local resident one night or an open field on the outskirts of a village the next.
In a settlement high in the mountains, they arrange to perform in the only local gathering place: a bar. But there is no audience when they arrive, just a bartender. Be patient, he tells the actors, who step outside and notice the streets are empty too. Then they see something in the distance: "strings of tiny, bobbing headlamps, hundreds of them, rushing down the trails. They were gold miners, descending the mountains all at once."
Based in San Francisco, Alarcon is a founder of the bilingual podcast Radio Ambulante and author of the novel "Lost City Radio." In this big, second novel his audience will be captivated again by his abundant storytelling skills.
For Nelson, the youngest member of the novel's acting troupe, the rural tour has a revelatory quality: He's seeing the country he couldn't see growing up. As a member of his country's "traumatized generation" he grew up rarely venturing outdoors and could only dream of traveling beyond the limits of the nation's capital city.
"At Night We Walk in Circles" is a novel that successfully takes up many of the great themes and sorrows of the Latin American present. Alarcon's unnamed country (which bears a striking resemblance to Peru) is recovering from a war that raged in the capital city and many distant provinces. The conflict sent many people into exile, dividing families, including that of Nelson, whose "early adolescence coincided with the hard, bleak years of the war."
By the time Nelson reaches adulthood the war is long over, but he latches on to a powerful memory from that time of conflict — hearing a radio interview with an imprisoned actor named Henry. Spurred by that memory, Nelson becomes an actor too.
Now in his 20s, he seeks out the jaded Henry and joins his radical theater troupe Diciembre in a revival tour of their most famous play, "The Idiot President."
"Nelson was obsessed. He loved [the troupe], their history, and his admiration for Henry Nuñez was really something," one of the characters tells the novel's narrator. "You've got to understand, this is not a universally recognized playwright or anything.... I'll admit, I never understood what the big deal was."
Much of "At Night We Walk in Circles" is written in this fashion. The narrator is a young man of Nelson's generation piecing together a story about Nelson with a series of interviews. Much of "At Night We Walk in Circles" therefore feels like a kind of oral history, which is both the novel's strength and its most glaring weakness.
The overlapping stories in this book, together with Alarcon's lucid writing and confident command of his subject matter, make "At Night We Walk in Circles" an essential contribution to literature of the Latin American diaspora. (Alarcon was born in Peru and raised in the U.S. South.)
With Henry, the aging theater rebel, Alarcon gives us a rich portrait of a character familiar to any Latin American reader: the avant garde artist whose naïve rebellion against conformity nearly costs him his life. In the 1980s Henry was jailed for writing and performing "The Idiot President," an experience that traumatized him and silenced his art for many years.
When he agrees to a revival of "The Idiot President," Henry finds himself becoming close to Nelson. Alarcon describes the relationship between these men, young and old, with great tenderness. And Alarcon's ear for humorous and revealing dialogue brings the story and characters to life.
"If the text of a play constructs a world," Henry tells the narrator, "then a tour is a journey into that world.... That's what I wanted. To enter the world of the play, and escape my life."
The tour is fated to end badly, as the novel's narrator tells us repeatedly. (Alarcon relies on foreshadowing a tad too much to retain narrative tension in his novel.) The narrator also suggests that a grim fate awaits the idealistic and love-struck Nelson.
The love affair between Nelson and his girlfriend, Ixta, is the novel's emotional fulcrum — it's implied that Nelson's love for Ixta will somehow destroy him. But Alarcon is too cautious a writer to convey the irrational passion of their relationship. Why does Nelson remain obsessed with this woman for more than 300 pages? The best Alarcon can summon is a phrase repeated by legions of men in every culture: "Ixta, Nelson told his father one night, was like a riddle he felt compelled to solve."
What's more, Alarcon's prose often loses the specific, sensual details that can make novel pages feel fully alive. Original descriptions of his characters' physicality are mostly lacking, and there are too many generic descriptions of urban and rural landscapes.
If Alarcon can manage to fully awaken his inner poet, he'll join the top ranks of American novelists. Nevertheless, this is a taut, heartfelt and important work of fiction filled with unexpected turns. Among other things, the play the theater troupe puts on, "The Idiot President," is a luscious farce, and a wonderfully funny and strange invention.
"At Night We Walk in Circles" is an outstanding second novel from Alarcon, a work that creates a multilayered world and invites you to enter it.
At Night We Walk in Circles
Riverhead: 374 pp., $27.95
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