At Night We Walk in Circles
The breakout book from a prizewinning young writer: a “surrealistic tour de force” (O, The Oprah Magazine) about one man’s obsessive search to find the truth of another man’s downfall.
Nelson’s life is not turning out the way he hoped. His girlfriend is sleeping with another man; his brother has left their South American country, leaving Nelson to care for their widowed mother; and his acting career can’t seem to get off the ground. That is, until he lands a starring role in a touring revival of The Idiot President, a legendary play by Nelson’s hero, Henry Nuñez, leader of the storied guerrilla theater troupe Diciembre. And that’s when the real trouble begins.
Nelson’s fate is slowly revealed through the investigation of the narrator, a young man obsessed with Nelson’s story—and perhaps closer to it than he lets on. In sharp, vivid, and beautiful prose, Alarcón delivers a compulsively readable narrative and a provocative meditation on fate, identity, and the large consequences that can result from even our smallest choices.
During the war—which Nelson’s father called the anxious years—a few radical students at the Conservatory founded a theater company. They read the French surrealists, and improvised adaptations of Quechua myths; they smoked cheap tobacco, and sang protest songs with vulgar lyrics. They laughed in public as if it were a political act, baring their teeth and frightening children. Their ranks were drawn, broadly speaking, from the following overlapping circles of youth: the long-hairs, the working-class, the sex-crazed, the poseurs, the provincials, the alcoholics, the emotionally needy, the rabble-rousers, the opportunists, the punks, the hangers-on, and the obsessed. Nelson was just a boy then: moody, thoughtful, growing up in a suburb of the capital with his head bent over a book. He was secretly in love with a slight, brown-haired girl from school, with whom he’d exchanged actual words on only a handful of occasions. At night, Nelson wrote out the dialogues he imagined they would have one day, he and this waifish, perfectly ordinary girl whom he loved. He had never been to the theater.
The company, named Diciembre, coalesced around the work of a few strident, though novice playwrights, and quickly became known for their daring trips into the conflict zone, where they lived out their slogan—theater for the people!—at no small risk to the physical safety of the actors. Such was the tenor of the era that while sacrifices of this sort were applauded by certain sectors of the public, many others condemned them, even equated them with terrorism. In 1983, when Nelson was only six, a few of Diciembre’s members were harassed by police in the town of Belén; a relatively minor affair, which nonetheless made the papers, prelude to a more serious case in Las Velas, where members of the local defense committee briefly held three actors captive, even roughed them up a bit, believing them to be Cuban agents. The trio had adapted a short story by Alejo Carpentier, quite convincingly by all accounts.
Nor were they entirely safe in the city: in early April 1986, after two performances of a piece entitled “The Idiot President,” Diciembre’s lead actor and playwright was arrested for incitement, and left to languish at the prison in Collectors for the better part of a year. His name was Henry Nuñez, and his freedom was, for a brief time, a cause célèbre. Letters were written on his behalf in a handful of foreign countries, by mostly well-meaning people who’d never heard of him before, and who had no opinion about his work. Somewhere in the archives of one or another of the national radio stations lurks the audio of a jailhouse interview: this serious young man, liberally seasoning his statements with citations of Camus and Ionesco, describing a prison production of “The Idiot President,” with inmates in the starring roles. “Criminals and delinquents have an intuitive understanding of a play about national politics,” Henry said in a firm, uncowed voice. Nelson, age nine, chanced to hear this interview. His father, Sebastián, stood at the kitchen counter preparing coffee, with a look of concern.
“Dad,” young Nelson asked. “What’s a playwright?”
Sebastián thought for a moment. He’d wanted to be a writer when he was his son’s age. “A storyteller. A playwright is someone who makes up stories.”
The boy was intrigued but not satisfied with this definition.
That evening, he brought it up with his brother Francisco, who responded the way he always did to almost anything Nelson said aloud: with a look of puzzlement and annoyance. As if there were a set of normal things that all younger brothers knew instinctively to do in the presence of their elders, but which Nelson had never learned. Francisco fiddled with the radio. Sighed.
“Playwrights make up conversation. They call them scripts. That crap you write about your little fake girlfriend, for example.”
Francisco was thirteen, an age at which all is forgiven. Eventually he would leave for the United States, but long before his departure, he was already living as if he were gone. As if this family of his—mother, father, brother—mattered hardly at all. He knew exactly how to end conversations. Until that moment, Nelson had thought his journals were private.
No recordings of the aforementioned prison performance of “The Idiot President” have been found.
By the time of his release, in November of that same year, Henry was much thinner and older. He no longer spoke with that firm voice; in fact, he hardly spoke at all. He gave no interviews. In January, in response to an uprising by inmates, two of the more volatile sections of the prison in Collectors were razed, bombed and burned by the army; and the men who’d made up the cast of “The Idiot President” died in the assault. They were shot in the head, or killed by shrapnel; some had the misfortune to be crushed beneath falling concrete walls. In all, three hundred forty three inmates died, vanished, and though Henry wasn’t there, part of him died that day, too. The incident garnered international attention, a few letters of protest from European capitals, and then it was forgotten. Henry lost Rogelio, his best friend and cellmate; his lover, though he wouldn’t have used that word at the time, not even to himself. He did not take the stage again for nearly fifteen years.
Praise for At Night We Walk in Circles
“Wise and engaging . . . [a] layered, gorgeously nuanced work.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Consistently compelling . . . Alarcón’s smoothly polished prose [is] flecked with wit and surprisingly epigraphic phrases . . . with lines that knock the wind out of you.”
—The Washington Post
“Outstanding . . . a work that creates a multilayered world and invites you to enter it.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Masterful . . . a sterling novel . . . brave, thoughtful and astute . . . elegant in its construction, it feels perfectly suited to bring Alarcón’s tremendous talent to a wider audience.”
—The Miami Herald
“Compelling . . . an intellectual puzzle.”
—The Boston Globe
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