The London Times called Daniel Alarcón’s first book, the story collection War by Candlelight, a “luminous beginning,” and the writer Edward P. Jones noted that “Daniel Alarcón’s stories are one of the reasons we go to storytellers—they present worlds we have only imagined or heard about in less truthful and poetic ways.” In his second book, the novel Lost City Radio, Alarcón explored the long-reverberating consequences of civil war; the novel is, as Jonathan Yardley said, “a fable for an entire continent, and no less pertinent in other parts of the world.” From the beginning of Alarcón’s writing career, his work has been recognized both nationally and internationally. Alarcón was named a Best Young American novelist by Granta, was one of the New Yorker 20 under 40 in 2010, and received the International Literature Prize from the House of World Cultures. He is also the recipient of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and a Lannan Writing Fellowship.
Alarcón is an astonishingly original fiction writer, and his work often reminds me of two of Chekhov’s central precepts for writing. Chekhov advised that writers should “be more cold”—rely on understatement, carefully crafted to invite the reader to supply the emotion. And he also said a good story should punch the reader on the snout—a delivery that Alarcón has mastered, intricately seeding a seemingly reportorial delivery with just the kind of details that can break your heart.
In his new novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón tells the story of a touring revival of The Idiot President, a protest play written by Henry Nuñez when his unnamed Latin American country was in a state of civil war. For the revival, Henry forms a troupe that includes a young actor, Nelson, who believes in Henry and the courageousness of his work. The revival plays to audiences in the remote countryside who want to be entertained but are indifferent to the politics of a former era. Even Henry can’t summon his old conviction. In the course of the tour, Nelson contends with a crumbling personal life and threats from a gangster. Nelson’s story is reported by a journalist narrator pursuing how Nelson’s personal tragedy is entangled with Henry’s almost-forgotten past as protester and political prisoner. And acting features prominently in this novel because ultimately it’s about sympathetic identification—its risks, its limits, and its transforming power to change us.
The Rumpus: One of the things that grabbed my attention as soon as I began reading At Night We Walk in Circles was the journalist who narrates this story, though he’s only tangentially drawn into the plot at a critical juncture. So there’s an added layer of apparatus in the novel—his interviews with characters after-the-fact, his speculations about their motives, and his way of occasionally inserting his own story into the story he’s telling. What led you to try this tactic for narrating the novel?
Daniel Alarcón: I would love to say it was deliberate narrative strategy from the moment I began, but that would be false. The “I” slipped in as I was working, and the longer I put off resolving who that “I” was, the more weight that question took on. It became important to try to identify a satisfying answer to that, or risk undermining the entire structure of the novel.
Rumpus: You could have chosen for a narrator a character who was more intimately involved in events or used third-person omniscient. So why this choice?
Alarcón: There might be easier ways to solve the narrative quandary, but sometimes the easiest solution isn’t the best solution. I wanted there to be a reason this person was telling the story, and I wanted that reason to be a mystery. It’s more than that: I wanted that mystery to pull the reader along. I liked how the voice of the narrator, and his questions, become the reader’s own questions. But yeah, at times I definitely thought about a simpler, third person narrative, and wondered why the hell I was doing this to myself.
Rumpus: The narrator’s role as a reporter piecing together a story struck me as metafictional, too. I know it took you a number of years to write this novel, so I wondered whether the struggle with the material became part of the subject of the novel, as a way to get even with a story that was refusing to open to you.
Alarcón: Sure. Investigating the circumstances of Nelson’s tragedy was very much the role of the author. When I was writing the novel, two books were touchstones for me: Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, particularly the middle section, where the text gathers a multitude of voices, without revealing who is collecting all these testimonies. And another important one was Group Portrait with Lady by Heinrich Böll. A friend who knew I was struggling with the voice of my novel found Böll’s book and gave it to me. The journalistic voice of that novel really shed light on how I could narrate my own book. I wanted my narrator to have his own idiosyncratic motives for becoming involved in the story. His own history and complicated relation to the provinces and the city come into play as he reports the story—a number of coincidences led him to become obsessed with the story. You have to be careful with these, of course. When coincidence becomes too convenient, it can be troubling for readers, they can give your work a certain thinness. But sometimes, if well-placed, coincidence can feel a lot like life.
Rumpus: But I also got a sense of your authorial uneasiness with assuming the authority to tell a story—presuming to account for the inner lives of others.
Alarcón: Yes. A lot of times it’s a class question for me, particularly in regards to the prison material in the novel. I spent tons of time in prisons in Peru, listening to inmates’ stories. I explored the places where these men came from, both in the city and in the provinces. But no amount of research makes me one of them. There’s definitely a question of who has the prerogative to tell that story.
At the end of the novel, this is one of the questions the narrator is left with. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean it’s allowed. There’s a great line in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” That’s something that a fiction writer should wrestle with too, on occasion.
Rumpus: By definition, if you’re writing, you’ve already accrued privilege and access.
Alarcón: You’ve accrued it without necessarily having earned it. It’s something to think about, not that it should keep you from writing what you want to write, of course.
Rumpus: Some of the novel’s most vivid scenes are set in prison. Prison, especially under brutal conditions, seems the most emblematic instance of the impasse between an outsider’s view and an insider’s view—of the leap that you as writer and the reader have to make to even begin to comprehend someone else’s experience.
Alarcón: It’s also a question of how you become an insider. No one is an insider when he gets to prison the first time; no one wants to be. I might have artistic curiosity or humane interest in it, but that doesn’t mean I want to be an insider. I can never belong. The narrator has that issue, and Nelson has that issue, too. Does he become an insider once he spends time in prison? When is Nelson acting and when is he not acting?
Rumpus: There’s an absurdist energy to this novel: the protest play was first staged decades ago by Diciembre, a protest theater group, during the country’s civil war, and the playwright, Henry, paid for his action by spending time in prison. But none of that seems to matter for the audiences who come to see the revival purely for entertainment. Your novel references an era of political protest but positions it as something already forgotten—or at least diminished to irrelevance. Could you talk about that choice?
Alarcón: In the midst of “good times,” no one wants to hear a contrary word. It begs the question: what’s the point of a protest play if no one wants to protest? Where is the motivation for social critique if there’s no political urgency? Nelson buys into the glamor of Diciembre, its mythology, but when he goes on tour he bumps up against a different reality. In these isolated poor places, people don’t necessarily have the context to understand the play or the political realities it references. After the performance, they come up to Henry, who plays the president, bow their heads and thank him, calling him “Mr. President.” Governance is abstract for them. Protesting the state in a place where there’s hardly any presence of the state—where there’s unfettered lawlessness, drug running, illegal mining—is like protesting rain in the desert. The people who view the play have no idea how to respond.
There’s something else, too: protest is exhausting. Henry belongs to a generation of artists, activists, and advocates who lived by an ideology of denunciation and protest. By the time of the play’s revival, he’s tired. The initial spark of protest fades—it’s hard to sustain even in the best of circumstances. Nelson doesn’t quite understand that exhaustion. He gives himself over to the play in a complete way and pays a price for it.
Rumpus: Why focus on actors? How important is that in terms of what you want to explore in the novel?
Alarcón: I admire an actor’s ability to mimic—the audacity to appropriate someone’s story, to become someone else. There’s an irony in the conclusion of the novel, when Nelson challenges the narrator’s right to tell his story—isn’t that what an actor does with every scene?
There’s another reason I was drawn to actors, and it’s very simple. Every culture has its theatre. Every culture uses the stage to tell its stories, its myths. A stage can be just a plot of dirt, but we understand what it means to represent, to reinterpret reality in this metaphorical way. If a bare stage set is meant to represent a city, even kids understand how that works. When you say, “Hey, let’s pretend,” we get that.
Rumpus: At one point, under threat, Nelson has to impersonate an old woman’s long-lost son. There’s a sense in the novel that context and environment can exert a pressure to perform a role—force an identity on someone.
Alarcón: Nelson is forced to perform a role he doesn’t want, yet learns to find certain pleasures in the work, in keeping up his craft, finding ways to connect with the person he’s impersonating. He’s an actor, after all, and performing is in his blood. Whether by force or by choice—in the book it’s a bit of both—he can still lose himself in it.
Rumpus: What novels were in your mind as you wrote this, as books you wanted to emulate or be in dialogue with?
Alarcón: I twice read the collected novellas of Chekhov—his long stories. I love the way his work feels so natural, so organic and unadorned. Let me sit down and tell you a story. “The Duel” is one of my favorites. And The Savage Detectives, which I mentioned earlier, was a key book, in part because of the way Bolaño writes about artists and art, placing poets at the center of his imagined universe, as if they were superheroes. It’s an illusion you can sometimes feel, in certain circles, in certain Latin American cities: you can begin to believe that writers and writing are at the very center of things. Everyone in this bar is talking about who got reviewed or which book is better than another, as if they’re talking sports, getting worked up without any sense of proportion. I went to lunch once with a beloved Peruvian writer, Alfredo Bryce Echenique, and people walking by gaped in the window at him and circled back to take his photo. It was like a scene from Bolaño. I wanted to capture some of that in the novel.
Rumpus: I thought of Milan Kundera as well as Roberto Bolaño when I read your novel. Both of these writers see the absurdist comedy even in grim human politics, particularly in terms of its distorted proportions, in which the trivial can seem to loom as large as the tragic. Do you see your concerns as a writer intersecting with these two?
Alarcón: Massive political and cultural shifts often get confused when you start telling your own history. The year of the coup becomes the year my son broke his leg. Massively felt societal earthquakes get tangled up with small personal tremors. Not long after Henry gets out of prison, hundreds of prisoners are massacred, but Henry remembers just one, his friend Rogelio. The others fade away, and all the pain, all that heart ache, is concentrated in the memory of one man, one friend. There’s a line—one of the most sadistic, cruel, and at the same time absolutely true statements I’ve ever heard—attributed to Stalin. He said, “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” I feel that it’s often the role of literature to tell the story of that one death. If it’s true that the victors write the history, then I suppose the losers should write the novels.
Rumpus: Some of the themes in At Night We Walk in Circles echo the concerns of your previous novel. Lost City Radio is set in another unnamed South American country and centers on a radio host who still reads on-air the names of those who disappeared in a civil war ten years in the past. So I wanted to ask why this is a subject that compels you as a storyteller.
Alarcón: Well, it’s not another unnamed South American country. It’s the same one. The same city. A place with the same history. The novels, as I see them, are connected in that way. So, your question: why do I go back there? It’s kind of a thought experiment I’ve been doing: thinking about the life I didn’t have, versions of the life that I might have had if my family hadn’t left Peru in 1980. Through this accident of migration, the formative years of childhood and adolescence were spent, not in the midst of a civil war in a besieged city, but in a quiet, leafy, rather pleasant American suburb. Call it survivors’ guilt. Wondering what my life might have been like. These are questions I’ve had, again and again: what happened in those times? Why did it happen? Who was complicit? Who paid and how dear was the price? I’ve always been curious about those years, I think, in part because we didn’t talk about them. They were hard years, and they bred silence, in my parents, my family. I’ve been trying to unpack that silence in three books now.
Rumpus: Jonathan Yardley called Lost City Radio “a fable for an entire continent, and no less pertinent in other parts of the world.” And your first book, War by Candlelight, is a collection of stories where wars are waged in jungles, across borders, in the streets of Lima, and in the intimacy of New York apartments. It seems to me that you have a sense of mission as a writer, one that is related to exploring the realities of an increasingly globalized culture.
Alarcón: I wouldn’t describe it as a mission. It’s not conscious anyway. It doesn’t feel that way to me when I’m writing.
Rumpus: You have to write blind. You can’t ask any questions about theme—
Alarcón: Or you won’t be able to tell a story. Stories emerge at a molecular level, very small, very intimate. A hint of a scene, an image, a line of dialogue. The larger questions, the big questions—what is the novel about? What does it say about the world?—these are questions that can only be answered much, much later, and from a great distance. I’m much better at talking about Lost City Radio, about its meaning, than I am about At Night We Walk in Circles. In some ways, I still don’t know what this new book is about, what it has to say. Its message… That’s something I’ll be discovering over the next few years, as I talk about it across the world, with readers from different places. That process, when I went through it with my first novel, was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I’m looking forward to seeing this new book that way.
Rumpus: I’m also thinking about the very 21st century ways that you are committed to storytelling, ways that flow beyond the boundaries of fiction writing and journalism. I wanted to talk about some of your projects that relate to this, maybe starting with your graphic novel, Ciudad de payasos, a collaboration with visual artist Sheila Alvarado. It’s based on your story “City of Clowns,” which is included in War by Candlelight. What could you say in this form that you couldn’t say with just words?
Alarcón: I think I was drawn to this form because I didn’t grow up reading comics. When I was in graduate school, someone gave me a copy of Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goraẑde. I was blown away by his work, by the fluency of it, the way he spent time filling each frame, planning and executing each angle and every last detail. It made me think a lot about visual narrative. Sheila Alvarado is a good friend of mine, and an immense talent, and we started talking about projects we collaborate on. I suggested “City of Clowns,” and as it happened, that was her favorite story of mine. So we decided to give it a try.
We had no idea what we were doing, but we knew one thing: we wanted each individual page to be an image that could exist as part of the story, or in a frame on the wall of a gallery. We wanted to be very careful with the design of each page, the way the text flowed into the image, and vice versa. We thought it would take six months, and it ended up taking eighteen. As I said, we didn’t really know how to pull this off. Nor could our publisher give us much advice because no one had ever done a graphic novel like this in Peru. That made it an even bigger challenge, and a more exciting project. The book will finally appear in the U.S. sometime next year or so.
Rumpus: It will be interesting to compare the two versions of the story.
Alarcón: In comparing them, you’ll notice that there was great care put into paring down the text to create a balance between word and image—to use the strength of the format. It forced me to edit my own work in a completely different way.
Rumpus: You’re also a co-founder and executive producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language storytelling podcast. Can you talk a little bit about the aims of Radio Ambulante, and why you’ve chosen to explore this form of storytelling?
Alarcón: Radio is very complementary to literature. There’s something intimate about reading a novel, as if someone’s talking to you, whispering in your ear. Radio can do the same: skip the brain and go straight to the heart. You’re listening not just to the words people say but the way they say them; even the pauses can reveal things about the person that they may not even want you to know. Radio is also collaborative, where writing is so solitary, and I really enjoy working with people. Another thing I love about the medium is that when I’m working on stories, I might be working with someone in Argentina, someone else in Mexico, and someone in Spain. It gives me a great vantage point. It makes me feel less Peruvian in some ways, and more Latin American. It also satisfies my curiosity about the world, and it offers the same creative challenges fiction does—how to tell a story well, so it has energy and doesn’t drag. As with the graphic novel, with radio, we had to go out and learn how to do it. Not knowing what the fuck you’re doing is always exciting. It’s frightening, humbling, but always exhilarating.
Featured image of Daniel Alarcón © by Adrian Kinloch.