Under the Covers: At night, think about our history

March 27, 2014

“I was a judge at a recent Literary Death Match in Miami. One of my co-judges was [Tina Fey. The other was] Prodigy of Mobb Deep, who was one of my heroes growing up. I used the opportunity to tell him that I’m producing a series of bilingual rap songs with my 8 month old son, Eliseo.”

Daniel Alarcón’s latest novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, is an amateur’s in-depth investigation into the circumstances surrounding his friend’s death. The framing device is unique in a world of third person singular and unidentified narration, but it is just as adept at presenting a provocative, richly colored story without distracting from the narrative. In fact, the narrator knows nothing of his friend’s life. He, too, must understand what brought (character) with a theater troupe to an Andean village with too little oxygen and [thin air] and tense emotional something or other. His solemn, earnest determination to understand H’s life smooths the sometimes-bumpy road to the strange, almost mythical moun-tain towns.

In fact, this is Alarcóns hallmark: like the great mythmakers, he presents idiosyncratic and quixotic characters, hints of magical realism and saturated color with a trustworthy tone. Alarcón is a teller of tales. In At Night We Walk in Circles, the act of story-telling forms the plot. Nelson and his theater troupe are performing The Dictator, a political farce popular during the oppressive, violent regime in the unnamed Latin American country where the book is set.

Alarcón was born in Lima, Peru, and was raised in Alabama. He went on to study anthropology. Traces of these studies are evident in his novel, which sometimes feels like a beautifully worded emic ethnology of his native country, albeit focused on a group of artists from the capital city, always in distinct contrast with the villagers of the mountains. Tradition, village life and themes of coming to America loom large. Alarcón has said in interviews that he encounters criticism for writing about Peru while not living there. He responds that the criticism is fair. His characters carry with them this feeling of being out of place and overcome it through complete obsession with theater.

Unlike his theater-obsessed characters, Alarcón delves into the greater cultural scene with regularity.

He talks about Radio Ambulante, a podcast telling stories from Latin America. Translated as “Travelling Radio,” the show conducts a literary ethnography of Latin American writers and storytellers. It is concerned with a world of letters decidedly removed from the establishment without losing any of the talent, intelligence or depth. If the establishment is the ivory tower, the story-telling and intellectual spirit of the west coast literary milieu paints the tower red.

Alarcón has written two novels, one novella, one collection of short stories and graphic novel in collaboration with Peruvian artist Sheila Alvarado. His artistic ability is impressive and translates through all the media he participates in.

At Night We Walk in Circles is intriguing, in particular for its characters. But Alarcón’s radio voice is more compelling, fascinating even. He is a casual personage with floating locks and sleepy eyes, but his incisive ideas translate well into radio production. Radio Ambulante shows have the lighthearted, musically accentuated flavor of Radio Lab but the clarity in content of an NPR classic like Diane Rehm.

The broadcast from Feb. 9 of this year is a knockout. In it, Alarcón talks to Chilean student Benjamin González, who, at his high school graduation, gave a speech disparaging the famous school’s established list of alumni and attitude of superiority. Among the 18 presidents that were formed at the Instituto Nacional, González reminds the listeners of the less savory: Pedro Montt Montt and Germán Riesco Errázuriz, who assassinated almost 4,000 Chileans between them. González reveals the truth and Alarcón tells his story—Radio Ambulante broadcasts sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English, and is supported and promoted by Public Radio International. González’s story is enthralling and deeply affecting, as are all the broadcasts.

Alarcón pulls together compelling material and has the skill, empathy, and intelligence to present it to audiences in many forms. Find in his novels and stories tales of amnesiacs and play-acting and sword-fighting where nothing seems normal but everything seems true. Look to his radio show for a vivid aural journey of a similar tincture. Alarcón’s written word is exciting on your bedside table at Georgetown, but for sea-water crinkled pages on the beaches of Lima, Radio Ambulante brings Alarcón’s voice to life.

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