Journalism is built on reconstruction. Understandably so, since writers tend to only catch wind of a story once it’s in progress – after the thing that makes it a story has already happened. Then they have to catch up by doing background research, interviewing sources and rebuilding timelines. The added X factor is who’s doing the reconstructing. It’s no secret that different journalists will tell the same story in wildly different ways, and careful readers know to check not just the source publication of any given piece, but also the byline.
The narrator of Daniel Alarcon’s third novel is a journalist, and his text unspools like a book of creative non-fiction. It’s even told in the first person. But it isn’t immediately clear for whom he’s writing it, and any glimmers of autobiographical context trickle out only sparingly: we can tell that he has an unusually close relationship to his subjects, but not the nature of the relationship itself. Is this a scoop? Or just a massive conflict of interest?
So it’s fitting that in At Night We Walk in Circles the unnamed narrator is reporting on a story about a theatre troupe trying to remount one of its old plays, 15 years after its debut. Just as this raw material is ultimately subject to the interests and abilities of Alarcon’s narrator, so does the play itself – a political satire by Henry Nunez called The Idiot President – depend on its director for, well, direction. Asked about the rehearsals she’s seen for the new version, Henry’s ex-wife remarks, “You know what? I’d remembered it being funny. Fifteen years ago, Henry had a sense of humor. I didn’t remember it being so fucking dark.” She allows that this darkness was always there in the script. “But he was emphasizing it now.” In other words, there is no definitive version. The show and story alike are fluid; both refuse to be pinned down.
Over the course of the novel, Henry will take The Idiot President into the rural territory of an unnamed South American country (thought to be Peru, where the Alabama-raised Alcaron was born), performing the play in whatever villages will have them, to whichever villagers are willing to watch. By his side are Patalarga, Henry’s longtime friend and associate, and Nelson, a 23-year-old who’s never left the big city and who grew up idolizing Henry from afar, beginning when the playwright was imprisoned for “incitement” and thereafter retired from the stage.
Slowly, the young journalist telling us about Henry and his play becomes enveloped in the story, and with Nelson’s role in it. He continually foreshadows something serious has happened to Nelson, and that Nelson’s fate is what has kept him pursuing the story. But what is it? As we burrow deeper into the unknown South American countryside, every stray glance or action from the villagers becomes ominously fraught, as if this one moment could be the domino that will take everything else down with it. You can picture the narrator’s editor at her desk, hunched over this engaging but shaggy manuscript, massaging her temples and reaching for the Advil bottle.
Like his Latin American counterpart Roberto Bolano, Alarcon depicts a world in which art and politics are not polar opposites, but complementary forces that can – indeed, must – overlap. In response to a government crackdown early in the novel, performers in Henry’s theatre troupe Diciembre (loosely based on the real Peruvian troupe Setiembre) respond with “a program of drama-based bacchanals.” Alarcon writes, “Gunshots were deliberately misheard, interpreted as celebratory fireworks, and used as a pretext to praise the local joie de vivre; blackouts put them in the mood for romance.” But this kind of energy can’t last forever. It’s always only a matter of time before one of those gunshots hits its target. Any target.
The novel’s title comes from an exchange in which Nelson tries to convince Henry to write a new play, this one about his time in prison. But the playwright is hesitant: “How do you set a play in a world that denies your characters any agency? Where do you begin?” He remembers the way he and his fellow prisoners would develop little routines, as a modest way of asserting their free will inside an institution bent on crushing it. “Friends paired off and walked circles around the prison yard, commiserating, confessing, doing all they could to imagine they were somewhere else.”
Upon hearing this story, Nelson grows even more excited. “Begin there!” he responds. “Or there! Or there!” Thinking back on this exchange years later, Henry gives Alcaron’s narrator the following grizzled, and entirely satisfying, response: “Young writers believe everything constitutes a beginning.”
Michael Hingston is the books columnist for the Edmonton Journal. His first novel, The Dilettantes, was released this fall.