Daniel Alarcón was born 1977 in Lima, Perú. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, earned a BA in anthropology from Columbia University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His collection of short fiction, War by Candlelight, was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. His first novel, Lost City Radio (2007), was set in an unnamed South American country more like Perú than any other country (with a capital on the coast and recent history of a long Maoist rebellion inland).
His second novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, is set in what again seems to be Perú (with a capital on the coast and recent history of a long Maoist rebellion and violent counterinsurgency inland/upland). It begins in the coastal capital city (rather like the author’s birthplace, Lima) in which Nelson, recently fledged from drama school, is selected to play the part of the servant in a three-man play “The Idiot President,” which got its author, Henry Nuñez (who played and will play again the titular arrogant president), imprisoned (in what seems to be the Lurigancho prison) on suspicions of being a subversive. Another veteran from the earlier run during times of counterinsurgency Patalarga owns a ramshackle theater and is eager to go on the road to the highland (Andean) hinterlands in a revival of the Diciembre troupe.
A bit more than the first half of the novel chronicles the relationship of the three players and their performances before rural audiences, most of whom have no idea what a theater or a play is.
Early on, the reader learns that Nelson had an intense love relationship in prison with someone named Rogelio, and when in the vicinity of Rogelio’s native village, Henry veers there and visits Rogelio’s family. Surprises start cascading there and I don’t want to be guilty of plot-spoilers, but can say that role engulfment (the collapse of the role distance which has already not been understand by audience members along the way) ensues in a quite Pirandellian situation.
Who the narrator – who has assiduously interviewed witnesses of the second Diciembre tour, including surviving members of the troupe, and who has Nelson’s diary – is gradually emerges. There is considerable foreshadowing of disaster, though not the one I expected.
I do not see any gain from obscuring the location of the story to an unnamed country that is Perú in all but name. And I think the novel could have been trimmed down, but having read it on a long flight was content to be enthralled by the tale(s). I felt a bit let down by the sly ending and wonder how others will react to it.
The narrative is more or less linear in terms of what happened to Diciembre on its tour, rather than being as piecemeal as the narrator’s research. The novel is more reader-friendly than Alarcôn’s first, in which switched narratives between sections in the first two-thirds or three-quarters of the book and had frequent .jump cuts occur within sections, even within paragraphs, though not arbitrarily switching with each sentence (as the Peruvian Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, once did).