At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón

The Idiot President’s son…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nelson has spent his young life expecting to leave his South American home and emigrate to the US in the footsteps of his elder brother, on a chain migration visa. But, just as it finally seems this dream is about to become reality, Nelson’s father dies and he knows he can’t simply leave his mother alone. He has always wanted to be an actor/playwright, and is coming to the end of his studies at the Conservatory. He auditions for a role in a touring revival of a play, The Idiot President, which once gained notoriety for Diciembre, the company who originally performed it in towns and villages during the recent civil war. Henry Nuñez, who wrote the play, and Patalarga were original members of the three-man cast, and will again play the eponymous Idiot President and his servant, while Nelson is chosen to play Alejo, the President’s son. As they tour the provinces of the country, the three men will gradually learn about each other’s pasts and develop an intricate and intimate kind of friendship. But we know from our unnamed narrator that tragedy of some kind looms…

….“How are things out there?” the old police chief asked. “What’s happening over in the provinces?”
….The provinces – this was another thing Nelson had come to understand. No matter where you went, no matter how far you traveled into the far-flung countryside, the provinces were always further out. It was impossible to arrive there. Not here – never here – always just down the road.

This is going to be rather a frustrating review, for two reasons. The first is that the slow revelation of the story and the mysteries within it are what lead the reader to want to keep turning the pages, and so it would be entirely unfair to reveal any more of the plot than I already have. The South American country is probably Peru, although it’s never named. Alarcón himself is Peruvian by birth, although he has lived in America since early childhood. However, he seems to maintain strong links to his Peruvian heritage, and the style of the book feels to me far closer to the Latin American tradition than to mainstream US American fiction. The main action of the book, the revival tour, takes place in 2001 and the civil war seems to have ended a dozen or so years earlier, so Nelson lived through it, but as a very young child. Henry and Patalarga, however, were men at the time, and the political aspects of their play marked them as dissidents. So although the book doesn’t take us deeply into the reasons behind the war, its after-effects hover over the present day, so that we see the nation and its people damaged and scarred and still in the process of anxious healing.

They were mostly inured to the austere beauty of the landscape by then; it was right in front of them, so commonplace and overwhelming they could no longer see it. In Nelson’s journals his descriptions of the highland terrain are hampered by his own maddening ignorance, that of a lifelong city dweller who has no idea what he’s looking at: mountains are described with simplistic variations of “large”, “medium”, or “small”, as if he were ordering a soda from a fast food restaurant.

The second reason for the difficulty in reviewing is that I’d love to be able to tell you what the book is about, but frankly I’m not at all sure that I know! Other than the effects of civil war, the strongest theme seems to be of identity, and Alarcón plays with this brilliantly in different ways throughout the book. From Nelson’s longing to be American, through the obvious metaphor of plays and acting, to questions of family, friendship and love, Alarcón seems to be looking at the formation of identity at the personal level. It’s partly a coming-of-age novel, and we see how Nelson is influenced by experience and by the people he becomes close to in his formative years. But we also see the more political side of identity – how in changing political circumstances people are identified by their convictions or their allegiances. Yesterday’s dissident is today’s patriot, and vice versa. Fame is illusory and dependent on circumstance. The best, albeit unsatisfactory, way I can think to sum it up is that we see the formation of individual identity mirroring society’s fracturing and reformation as a result of war.

….They ran through it again and again one afternoon, and even set up mirrors so Henry could see Nelson’s reaction. Three, four, five times, he kicked poor Patalarga, all the while locking eyes with Nelson.
….“Remember, I’m not kicking him, I’m kicking you!” Henry shouted.
….On the sixth run-through, he missed Patalarga’s hands, and nearly took off the servant’s head. Patalarga threw himself out of harm’s way just in time. Everyone stopped. The theatre was silent. Patalarga was splayed out on the stage, breathing hard.
….“Okay,” he said, “that’s enough.”
….Henry had gone pale. He apologised and helped Patalarga to his feet, almost falling down himself in the process. “I didn’t mean to, I…”
….“It’s all right,” Patalarga said.
….But Nelson couldn’t help thinking: if he’s kicking Alejo the whole time, why isn’t he apologising to me?
….For a moment the three of them stood, observing their reflections in the mirror, not quite sure what had just happened. Henry looked as if he might be sick; Patalarga, like a man who’d been kicked in the chest five times; Nelson, like a heartbroken child.
….“Are you all right?” Henry said toward the mirror.
….It was unclear whom he was asking.

Daniel Alarcón

However, although I found it thought-provoking, I must immediately dispel the idea that is a grim or difficult read. It is written lightly, beautifully indeed, and has humour and warmth all through. There is a love story at the heart of it, and not one you’d expect at all. And it is full of mystery – who is the narrator? Why is he telling Nelson’s story? What is the looming tragedy that is foreshadowed again and again as the narrator takes us close to the truth and then veers away again? It’s wonderfully done, and makes what could have been a heavy read into a page-turner, and when the ending came I found it surprising and satisfying, and it left me with my thoughts even more provoked. Is the message perhaps that our stories are an integral part of our identities, and that to tell another’s story is a form of theft? I don’t know. I don’t know. But I loved it, every single word. I do hope this frustrating review might have tempted you to read it. And if you already have, please tell me what you think it was about!

Amazon UK Link

44 thoughts on “At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón

  1. Good to be back reading your reviews! Your review has absolutely enticed me to see if I can find a copy of this book. For me it’s a real recommendation that the book cannot be easily described and that you also so much enjoyed reading it. I want to have this reading experience too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! That was something of an unscheduled break. I intended just to take a few days off to watch the tennis and catch up with writing some reviews. But then the Queen died and despite my great age it was my first opportunity to see a full state funeral and all the ceremony that goes around changing the monarch. And if Charles is as long-lived as his parents it will probably be my only one! So I ended up watching endless hours of the coverage on TV, and all those reviews remain unwritten… 😂

      This book really is excellent. It’s been lying on my TBR for years because I had kind of gone off the idea of it, so I’m glad that the Wanderlust challenge finally made me pick it up. Hope you enjoy it if you manage to get hold of a copy.

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      • Yes, even from afar, I found myself interested in the pageantry of the funeral and its strong historical links. This was also a first for me in terms of a changing of the monarch. There’s also a strong sense here that NZ will at some point become a republic, and that this is now more likely to happen following the Queen’s death (though there’s no urgency). So from that point of view as well, this may be an only monarch changing event for me too.
        At Night We Walk in Circles is in our library, so I will get to it at some stage…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I can quite see why a lot of the “realms” may see this as a catalyst for change though as you say I didn’t get the impression many of them will rush into it. It does seem a bit out-dated to have a Head of State who doesn’t live in the country. Here the monarchy still has a good majority of support, though there is a vocal republican movement, more so in Scotland than England. I suspect that the recent Presidents of the US have reminded us all that a non-elected figurehead as a Head of State is actually a very stabilising force. If anything, I think the monarchy has become more popular during the Trump/Biden era. And the younger Royals, William and Catherine, are hugely popular here and never put a foot wrong. They’ve really imbibed that sense of duty and service the Queen showed all her life.

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          • Yes, that sense of duty for William and Catherine has come through here too. The Queen too, has been deeply respected for her service, even by most of those who do not see a place for monarchy in NZ.

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            • Charles is the possible weak link – his popularity has never quite recovered from the Diana years. But there was actually an unexpected outpouring of affection and support for him too over the last couple of weeks – I think it took him by surprise, in fact. We’ll see if it lasts. I think it might, and I think his plans to slim down the monarchy and get rid of some of the most outdated aspects will be popular. If only he can stay out of politics…

              Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, I think his capacity to show grief (in a restrained manner) helped to humanise him and connect him more strongly to his mother, the Queen, at the same time giving him some gravity in his new role. And yes! to your final comment!

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            • He got a great balance, didn’t he? I must say they all looked exhausted and strained by the end of it all – can’t imagine having to do all that while grieving. I’m glad the public showed up for them!

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  2. I do like an ambiguous multi-layered story with personal and political angles, so it would come down to the actual writing, the intelligent literary style or the provoking show-don’t-tell approach (which I’m missing in the fiction I’m currently reading). This sounds to have it all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love that mix of the personal and political too, especially when the author is forcing me to think rather than thumping a too obvious “message” at me! And the writing in this one is great – full of little bits that made me stop for a moment just to appreciate them. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So glad to see you back, FictionFan! The book sounds fascinating! That slow reveal really can ork to keep a reader engaged, and the political undercurrent is interesting, too. The title of the play got my attention right away, and I think it’s interesting that we’re learning about the plot of the play at the same time as we’re learning about the characters in the novel. Intriguing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The way he portrayed Peru didn’t seem at all like I expected – the attitudes were all much more modern than I’d have imagined. Think that says more about my colonial mindset than the book, though! 😉

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  4. Glad you’re back! This book sounds great, and the review isn’t frustrating at all – more compelling. A book that can’t easily be described is usually excellent or terrible (in my experience) and it sounds like this falls very much on one side of the divide!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I ended up watching endless hours of the Royal coverage so my break went on longer than I’d planned! Yes, a book has to be really good if any ambiguity is to work, I find, and this one made me think rather than telling me what to think…

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  5. Welcome back! (tennis must be over 😉)

    I would never have considered this book, but your review has me thinking maybe I should! I have a niece who is married to a Peruvian and I always thought he was the nicest looking guy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Haha, the tennis got sidelined when the Queen died. It may be my only chance ever to see a change in our Head of State if Charles lives as long as his parents, so I ended up watching endless hours of all the ceremonial stuff!
      The book has been lingering on my TBR for years because I’d gone off the idea of it, but it’s so well done, and very enjoyable despite the political aspects. It changed my view of Peru – I’d always assumed it would be quite a backward place, with very old-fashioned attitudes, but it comes over as much more modern than I expected!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I always prefer a book that makes me think to one that tells me what to think, and I loved that this one wasn’t thumping an obvious “message” at me! If you get a chance to read it sometime, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I would not rush out to buy this book, but the review does interest me. Mostly I just have too many books. I just went to the annual book sale (5 visits, lots of books). I was trying to find more general fiction and I did. Don’t remember seeing this author’s name but the fiction section was huge and in so many divisions that I just hope I see most of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, this is exactly why I avoid going to book sales! Though the dreaded Amazon usually catches me even in my own home… 😉 I don’t remember seeing this author talked about either but when I looked the book up on Goodreads it appears that he’s actually very popular. So many authors in the world – it’s impossible to keep up with them all!

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    • It’s always tricky to know how much of the plot to reveal, isn’t it? With this one I felt the mysteries were what made it so entertaining so it would have been unfair to say more. But it makes reviewing hard!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hmm this sounds really surprising, and hard to slot into a genre or category. I generally like to know where a story is taking place, I find the ambiguity hard to swallow – why can’t they just tell us for god’s sakes?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, generally speaking I agree! But I think he did it in this one because he didn’t want it to get bogged down in real history – he wanted there to have been a civil war, but he didn’t want to have to take a side or discuss the reasons for it. I suppose if he’d named the country it would have been harder to ignore real events, maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

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