The timeline of Daniel Alarcón’s masterful new novel is organized the way our memories are, which is to say not at all. Or, more likely, there is probably some inner logic at work here, but it 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.
The uncommon majesty of At Night We Walk in Circles should come as no surprise. The Peru-born Alarcón’s debut, a story collection titled War By Candlelight, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway prize in 2006, and his first novel Lost City Radio turned up on a number of best-book-of-the-year lists. This one could easily to do the same.
At Night We Walk in Circles features a down-on-his-luck actor in his 20s named Nelson who has taken on the responsibility of caring for his widowed mother and whose girlfriend is going to have another man’s child. If there’s a dominant theme to the book, it has something to do with parenthood and responsibility, but much to his credit Alarcón is not interested in spoonfeeding us any easy moral epiphanies.
Nelson’s life gets even more complicated when he seeks out his idol, an infamous dissident playwright named Henry Nuñez. In his younger days, Henry had landed in a notorious prison after his drama The Idiot President was performed by a guerrilla theatre troupe Diciembre. The two of them, along with a colleague, decide to reform Diciembre, and they travel across the nation — an unnamed Andean land with certain similarities to Peru — in a revival of The Idiot President. Things do not go especially well.
The tour takes them to the town where the senile mother of Henry’s former cellmate and lover Rogelio lives. She has not been told of her son’s demise. Under some coercion, Nelson is forced to take on a role he hadn’t planned on, and the effects are staggering.
“It was as if in the process of becoming Rogelio, he’d completed some mystical erasure: Nelson almost ceased to exist, temporarily, though it would eventually be seen as a prelude to a more serious kind of erasure.”
The repercussions bring about an end to the tour, but rather than tying the various plotlines into a neat bow, Alarcón continues to raise the stakes to the very end. The result is a sterling novel about the manifold ways that the uneasy relationship between art and politics so often disrupts individual lives. At Night We Walk in Circles is a brave, thoughtful and astute novel. Elegant in its construction, it feels perfectly suited to bring Alarcón’s tremendous talent to a wider audience.
Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, ‘Extraordinary Renditions.’