At Night We Walk in Circles
The breakout book from a prizewinning young writer: a breathtaking, suspenseful story of 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 Nunez, leader of the storied guerrilla theater troupe Diciembre. And that’s when the real trouble begins.
The tour takes Nelson out of the shelter of the city and across a landscape he’s never seen, which still bears the scars of the civil war. With each performance, Nelson grows closer to his fellow actors, becoming hopelessly entangled in their complicated lives, until, during one memorable performance, a long-buried betrayal surfaces to force the troupe into chaos.
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.
“Wise and engaging…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…[a] layered, gorgeously nuanced work…the ending is a quiet bomb, as satisfying as it is ambiguous.”
—New York Times Book Review
"The delicate precision, mounting tension and unfolding tragedy in this masterful book make it difficult to remember the story did not actually take place...Alarcón teaches us, in these pages, that perception and memory are relative. We see what we want to see, we believe what we want to believe. Performance can consume and distort. And time moves differently for all of us."
“Alarcón is one of those rare writers getting away with doing exactly what he wants… Like Rachel Kushner’s...The Flamethrowers, this is a story about the initiation of a young artist …[At Night We Walk in Circles is] consistently compelling…Alarcón’s smoothly polished prose [is] flecked with wit and surprisingly epigraphic phrases…with lines that knock the wind out of you.”
“Engaging and illuminating…an outstanding second novel from Alarcón, a work that creates a multilayered world and invites you to enter it.”
—Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times
“[A] surrealistic tour de force.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
"Masterful... a profound meditation on how identity is less a fixed substance within us, than an ever-shifting performance in reaction to a perceived audience."
—Anthony Marra, San Francisco Chronicle
“Alarcón's purpose here is to disorient us, stripping away markers of place and identity, until we have to see the world on different terms.”
— David Ulin, Los Angeles Times
“Daniel Alarcón has become one of the most important modern voices for the countries south of the border... Beautiful and compellingly told, [At Night We Walk in Circles] sets out to answer the basic question of how to live a good life in a bad place... 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.”
—The New Republic
“Masterful…[At Night We Walk in Circles] feels as natural and uncontrived as it is ingeniously constructed. Alarcón ferries back and forth in time with such alacrity that rather than feeling dizzy or confused he allows us to revel in the ways that our past — personal and national — affect our present….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.”
“Compelling…an intellectual puzzle.”
—The Boston Globe
“Alarcón’s writing is…fluid and mesmerizing…So much fights for our admiration, not least the clever allusions between the actors and the characters they play, the powerful portrayals of lives ruined by war and prison, and the evocative, if sobering, depictions of lost love.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Successfully takes up many of the great themes and sorrows of the Latin American present.”
—The Charlotte Observer
“Alarcón is a young, talented writer who is on the cusp of a breakthrough, a state of mind perfectly captured by the compulsively energetic voice of At Night We Walk in Circles… [a] gripping story.”
—The Daily Beast
“Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles is just about perfect... he skillfully weaves the past, present, and future…Alarcón [is] a man who knows what he’s doing.”
—The Coffin Factory
“There are novels that strive to imitate life, novels that sometimes succeed strikingly — even heartbreakingly — at imitating life. Then there are novels that seem to be the very stuff from which life is woven. Daniel Alarcón's third book, At Night We Walk in Circles, is an example of the latter. Alarcón's prose is seductive — detached, but also terribly intimate — and the accumulated effect of his paragraphs is a story so engrossing that it feels instantly like a classic. The book reads not like something that has been written by a talented young writer, but like something that has always been. It feels, in other words, timeless. And yet, it is timely, too. Despite an almost fable-like quality, At Night We Walk In Circles captures the rhythms of our generation and pulses with the zeitgeist of this economic moment... At Night We Walk in Circles is Alarcón's most ambitious and successful work yet — it not only lives up to the extraordinary promise of his first two books, but also promises much more to come from this wise and visionary young writer."
“Fascinating, and is a page-turner to boot.”
—The Huffington Post
“Highly readable…vivid and lovely.”
“A slow motion mystery…full of keen insight, dynamic characters, and post-modern flair…carefully constructed and deeply intriguing… The prose is cleanly evocative, the narrative is compelling and nuanced, and the slow mystery that burns at the heart of the book will not disappoint.”
“Riveting… a fast-unraveling mystery of role-playing and retribution, told in compelling prose that is smart, subtle, and totally engrossing.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Involving and dramatic…Alarcón strings the reader along expertly as he slowly complicates and shifts the perspective in this tragic tale of characters, citizens, lovers, and artists being influenced by the dangerous forces of political history and human desire.”
“How Alarcón manages this layered and complex structure is one of the novel's many pleasures. The country is nameless, but the descriptions are specific and vivid…At Night We Walk in Circles is a breathtaking novel, intimate and sweeping, about the capriciousness of fate and how its ultimate brutality can come in the form of absence and longing.”
“Nabokov says that imagination is a form of memory, and this novel is a perfect example of this claim. In writing about a place, its people and its history, Daniel Alarcón's memory catches the evanescent details of everyday life, while his imagination, never for a moment blurred, creates a powerful story with so many intricate characters. This is a novel written with extraordinary vision and wisdom.”
—Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl and The Vagrants
“This is a devastatingly good novel and a masterful work by a gifted storyteller. Via the tangled lives of a small group of Peruvian actors, and in clear, compelling prose, Daniel Alarcón weaves a suspenseful tale about illusion and longing, love and denial — about all the kinds of human exile.”
—Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and The Fall of Baghdad
Praise for Daniel Alarcón
“A prodigious talent.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“One of the most exciting and ambitious writers to emerge in recent years.”
“Alarcón, like the best storytellers, reveals to us that the world we have secreted in our hearts spins in a bigger universe with other hearts just as good and just as bad as our own.”
—Edward P. Jones
“Reading Alarcón feels like witnessing the arrival of a John Steinbeck or Gabriel García Márquez.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
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