At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcon, Riverhead Books, 2013, 372 pp
When I read Daniel Alarcon's first novel, I knew I had found a writer I would follow, that I would read every novel he would write. It has been a long wait, five and a half years to be exact, since I read the last page of Lost City Radio.
His new novel is similar in location, an unnamed South American country, but later in time. The civil war that had displaced and separated so many people in the first book has been over for almost a decade and the evidences of war have been built over until the capital city resembles a late 20th century peaceful and upwardly mobile urban area.
Thus the revolutionary tone of upheaval, chaos, and sacrifice that permeates the earlier novel is missing. Alarcon still excels in creating tortured characters longing for people they will not connect with and ideals they will not achieve but he is forced to tell the story from such a different angle. For the first half of At Night We Walk in Circles, I thought I might be reading a different author.
Nelson grew up during the war, called "the anxious years" by his father. A few years after the war ended, Nelson entered the Conservatory, apparently a theater school. The young man became obsessed with Henry Nunez, playwright and leader of the revolutionary guerrilla theater troupe Deciembre. Though he is an inexperienced and mediocre actor, his hero worship lands him a role in the touring revival of Nunez's notorious play The Idiot President. During the war years a performance of this play had resulted in Henry being accused of terrorism and sentenced to spend several years in a dreaded prison known as the Collectors.
Nelson sets off with Henry and another actor, traveling deep into the interior, learning the acting craft from Henry as they put on performances in town squares, school auditoriums, private homes and vacant lots. By this time the novel is almost half over and it is hard to tell what is the point of all of Nelson's insecure, anguished approach to life. In fact, Henry's past had become central to the story: his arrest, his prison years. and his broken spirit since returning to the outside.
Suddenly a convergence of past and present propels Nelson into an impossible situation leaving him trapped in a desolate mountain village. All the earlier pages have been the set up to Nelson's fate. Despite my love for Lost City Radio and my admiration for Alarcon's writing, I had come to that middle point of the novel feeling lost, bored, and let down. Partly due to Nelson's maddeningly indecisive and withdrawn personality and equally due to a slow pace and no apparent plot, I seriously considered reading something else.
I turned the next page and all had changed. Nelson was clearly doomed but where his fate was leading him and how the past and present were tangled and what Alarcon is telling us about identity, character, imagination, and about the intersections between the political and the personal, became the most interesting things in my world.
In addition to the problematic construction of his story, it turns out that the narrator is not the author but a mysterious character whose identity is finally revealed after that sudden change in the middle. I was pleased that Alarcon rescued me and left me somewhat awestruck by the end. Over time, I have a feeling my memory of reading At Night We Walk in Circles will be a fond one. Walking in circles at night in the prison yard with his fellow inmates was Henry's antidote for the horrors of his confinement there. Reading this novel evoked a similar feeling.
(At Night We Walk in Circles is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)