The young performer at the center of Daniel Alarcón’s wise and engaging new novel, “At Night We Walk in Circles,” isn’t the only one acting. The book is full of players and posers, among them a widow who writes to the newspapers in her dead husband’s name and mourners who “performed their sadness flamboyantly, pushing the very limits of realism.” Even the elusive narrator, a magazine writer, is playacting, pursuing a story that is unlikely ever to see print.
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AT NIGHT WE WALK IN CIRCLES
By Daniel Alarcón
374 pp. Riverhead Books. $27.95.
The intricate narrative delivers much more than the publisher-promised meditation on “fate” or “identity.” “At Night We Walk in Circles” is a provocative study of the way war culture ensnares both participant and observer, the warping fascination of violence, and the disfiguring consequences of the roles we play in public. The story unfolds in an unnamed South American country, but its concerns resonate far beyond its imaginary borders.
Alarcón opens with a quotation by Guy Debord, and the title of the novel seems to be a nod to Debord’s 1978 film “In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni,” a Latin palindrome that can be roughly translated as “At night we enter the circle and are consumed by fire.” Debord is best known for his treatise “The Society of the Spectacle,” and it is the dance between performer and spectator that animates Alarcón’s layered, gorgeously nuanced work about a young actor undone by his craft.
Like a moth that will be consumed by the fire it circles, the actor, Nelson, is irresistibly drawn to Henry Nuñez, the middle-aged leader of Diciembre, a guerrilla theater troupe whose wartime exploits have become legend. When Diciembre organizes a revival tour of Henry’s farcical play “The Idiot President,” Nelson wins a starring role as the president’s equally idiotic son.
It’s a chance to escape what, to Nelson at least, seems a mediocre future. His life so far is not turning out the way he’d hoped. His men have abandoned him: his father is dead, and his older brother long ago emigrated to the United States. His women, meanwhile, seem to have wandered in from a telenovela. Nelson’s mother is a needy widow. His icy ex-girlfriend, with whom he is still sleeping, is living with another man. When the narrator declares that Nelson’s mother had “a certain skill for projecting herself into the lives of her children, a talent all mothers have,” one envisions mothers everywhere rolling their eyes. But this sort of statement is a minor sin, easily (and cleverly) attributed not necessarily to Alarcón, but to his narrator, who is young and male and — perhaps — a stand-in for that particular type for whom Madonna-whore is more ideology than complex.
Not surprisingly, Nelson is at first energized by the camaraderie of his all-male touring company. His acting improves, even as he seems to vanish further and further into character. As the tour moves deeper into the Andean hinterlands, more of Henry’s shattered past is revealed, putting the three-man company on a collision course with Henry’s, and the country’s, history.
The narrator tells us that after a chance meeting with Nelson, he has decided to tell his story. Events are reported like long-form journalism, punctuated with interviews and asides in which the narrator gradually but never completely reveals himself. There are too many colons and he-told-me’s, but the reader sticks around to find out what happened to Nelson after the tour’s abrupt end.
Alarcón is a skilled storyteller who reinforces the novel’s organizing motif with subtle repetition and tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing. By the time the plastic prop knife makes its final appearance, it has acquired all the weight of Chekhov’s gun. The ending is a quiet bomb, as satisfying as it is ambiguous.
Like Alarcón’s first novel, “Lost City Radio,” this one is set in a country that if not quite the author’s native Peru is at least a first cousin — there are references to ceviche and “small Andean towns.” But the decision not to name it works especially well here, preventing the reader from restricting the target of the novel’s acid observations to a single country.
Throughout Nelson’s doomed travels, Alarcón offers glimpses of a South America that has stopped striving toward utopia, a place where “no one cared about human rights anymore,” only “about growth — hoped for and celebrated in all the newspapers, invoked by zealous bureaucrats in every self-serving television interview.”
Waiters wear period dress, striking the “contemporary tone of an amateurish theater production.” Even the capital is playacting for foreigners. The city center, we learn early in the book, has been “restored, block by block, with an optimistic eye toward a Unesco World Heritage designation.”
Alarcón gives us a place from which all the idealists (or were they merely poseurs?) have fled. Patalarga, the third man in the touring company, remembers two former teachers, one a Communist and the other a reactionary: “Both were living abroad now, in Europe.” Those who remain are forced, like Nelson’s mother, into a kind of shadow play: “reading the newspapers; serving as unwilling participant-observers in a stupid war; voting in one meaningless election after another; watching the currency collapse, stabilize and collapse again.”
Brutality, drugs and nasty prisons: there’s no magic here. This is Roberto Bolaño’s Latin America, robbed of paradise and haunted, in the words of the writer Rodrigo Fresán, by a “sense of monstrousness and waking nightmares.”
With “At Night We Walk in Circles,” Alarcón fulfills the promise of his two earlier books (he is also the author of “War by Candlelight,” a story collection), delivering a vibrant, ambitiously political story that derives its power from the personal. The rare lapse into abstraction quickly gives way to particulars described with devastating clarity. We are left with pure story, one that seems to question even its own motives while refusing to take sides in a world stripped of illusions.