At Night We Walk in Circles: Daniel Alarcón

Published by Fourth Estate

Things are not going well for Nelson. His girlfriend Ixta has left him, and his acting career is floundering. His older brother has moved to the United States, promising to help Nelson move there, but has made no attempt to start the process.

So when Nelson’s hero, the playwright Henry Nuñez, asks him to join him and his friend Patalarga to tour Peru’s villages, Nelson jumps at the opportunity.

Henry Nuñez once ran a guerrilla theatre group called Diciembre and was a successful playwright. One of his plays, The Idiot President—about a bloodthirsty leader who hires a new manservant every day only to kill him later—was not appreciated by the authorities, who found it seditious. Henry was arrested and spent several years in prison.

Prison did not silence Henry. He got permission for his fellow prisoners to perform The Idiot President. There were only three parts in the play. To avoid disappointment—“[i]t was for his own safety—some of these men didn’t take rejection very well”—he wrote in a few extra parts, including a chorus of citizens. This was a smart move: it made him friends among the prisoners. He became close to his cellmate Rogelio, who eventually became his lover. After Henry left, the prison burned down, killing everyone he knew there. Henry is haunted by these deaths.

Before he was incarcerated, Henry had toured Peru’s rural heartlands with Diciembre, staging The Idiot President. The play was very well received. In an attempt to recreate the triumph and take Henry’s mind off the deaths of the prisoners, Patalarga decides to repeat the tour. Henry would play the president, Patalarga the manservant, and Nelson his son.

The tour goes reasonably well until they get to T—, the town where Rogelio was born. Henry decides to pay a visit to Rogelio’s sister and elderly mother, only to realize they had no idea that Rogelio was dead or even in jail. Then Rogelio’s mother sees Nelson and mistakes him for her son, and things begin to get very complicated.

At Night We Walk in Circles is narrated by an unnamed man who is piecing the story together. At first it is not very clear who he is and why he wants to tell the story. All we know is that he is also from T—. And from the hints the narrator drops, it seems that the story does not end well, which gives the events a sense of inevitability. Alarcón’s use of the third-person narrative voice puts a certain distance between the reader and the story.

This is an intriguing tale. It depicts Peru beyond its big cities and portrays the effects of the guerrilla war waged by The Shining Path that destroyed so many people. At Night We Walk in Circles is about damaged lives and how decisions taken with the best of intentions can go badly awry.

Buy from UK / USA

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