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Daniel Alarcón's Haunting Political Fiction

The case for South America's continued importance

Kanaka Menehune

The Peruvian-born novelist Daniel Alarcón has become one of the most important modern voices for the countries south of the border. His first major book was the ambitious novel Lost City Radio (2007), a haunting tale set in an unnamed South or Central American country, where a talk show host uses on-air time to broadcast the names of those who have mysteriously “disappeared.” But that first novel had the airless precision of an experiment. Something about the life and trials of its characters felt brittle and incomplete, the anonymity of its setting eerily cold. It was torn between being a keen sketch of political turmoil and a broad historical fable.

Now—three years after being named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40”—Alarcón has written a second novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, that deals with its context much more concretely. A product, in part, of time the writer spent in Peruvian prisons, conducting interviews for Harper's, the story is all flesh and blood, set once again in an unnamed city but with a newly vivid sense of place. Beautiful and compellingly told, the novel sets out to answer the basic question of how to live a good life in a bad place. So we begin with Henry, the broken, irascible, and heartsick former head of Diciembre, an influential theater troupe forged in the years when the unnamed country was wracked by war, coups, and chaos. “Diciembre felt less like a theater collective and more like a movement,” Alarcón writes.

Henry had been a god then, challenging—with his writing and performances—the witless and cruel leaders who clung to a crumbling status quo. But one night the dramatist is brought down to earth, when he is arrested on terrorism charges and taken to Collectors, the capital’s infamous prison. There, the iconoclastic playwright and director finds a world even darker than the one outside the gates. Prisoners sleep naked, shivering under stairwells or out in the open. Junkies roam the halls—unpoliced by the guards—and cell blocks are run by men who sell food, control clothing, and determine who gets conjugal visits. Sleeping in a bed still warm from sex someone has paid for, Henry withdraws into himself, refusing even to move, until he is coaxed back to life by an enchanting, illiterate cell mate named Rogelio.

Eventually, Rogelio and Henry grow close. Plans are made among the prisoners to restage Henry's great play, The Idiot President, the production that had landed the playwright in jail in the first place. Among a motley crew of murderers and thieves, Rogelio earns a starring role. Soon enough, however, Henry is freed from prison, and the old cell block is consumed by fire. In a state of mourning—15 years later—we encounter Henry, driving a taxi, newly divorced and father to a daughter who can’t imagine a time when theater was “improvised in response to terrifying headlines, when a line of dialogue delivered with a chilling sense of dread did not even require acting.” But not much has actually changed. By the end of the book, Henry's old play comes back to life a third time. Again, there will be violence, and an intervention by the state—proving once more how fragile such inventions can be. 

It's been thirty years since the United States invaded Grenada and nearly twenty-five since we deposed Panama’s Manuel Noriega. American dollars are still flowing south but it has been a full generation since that continent was at the forefront of our foreign policy or our national imagination. Yet Alarcón’s work never feels unsure of its importance or its relevance. This novel make the case that Lima really is as important as Istanbul, and the Andes as urgent as Appalachia. The ghosts of South America may be quiet, but Alarcón reminds us not to forget them.

Nathan Deuel’s debut collections of essays, Friday Was the Bomb, will be published in May 2014. He has written for GQ, Harper’s, and The New York Times, among others.