The opening passage of Daniel Alarcón’s new novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, describes a time – “during the war” – when a few “radical students” start a theater company that begins to feel like a movement: the actors perform in great physical danger, staging all-night shows in newly abandoned buildings, with gunshots “deliberately misheard, interpreted as celebratory fireworks… They celebrated on principle anything that kept audiences awake and laughing through what might have otherwise been the long, lonely hours of curfew.”
The troupe, Diciembre, becomes mythologized by the next generation, who “are too young to remember how ordinary fear was” during the war, and “find it difficult to imagine a time when theater was improvised in response to terrifying headlines, when a line of dialogue delivered with a chilling sense of dread did not even require acting.”
Nelson, a fledgling actor and member of this younger generation, who has never left his native South American city, gets the part of a lifetime: the son of The Idiot President, Diciembre’s legendary play which, upon its premiere fifteen years earlier, resulted in its author – and Nelson’s hero, Henry Nuñez – being jailed under charges of terrorism. The play’s revival consists of the two actors, along with Henry’s friend and original acting partner Patalarga, touring rural Andean towns, which constitutes the plot of the novel.
Through the tour, Nelson sees provincial life for the first time and comes to doubt the wisdom in Henry’s demand that they give themselves over to the world of the play. “What good was that advice,” he wonders, “if the present was not new or different at all, but fundamentally the same: the usual traumas, only now set on a cold mountaintop, on a pitch-black night?” He comes to see – and accepts – his hero as a broken man, whom he respects but no longer idolizes, and just as the play’s climactic scene becomes so emotionally resonant to the three actors that the play overtakes them, Nelson is forced to play a real-life role that ends the tour and puts his life in danger.
The story is revealed in a calm but declarative manner by a mysterious narrator whose own story becomes increasingly central to the novel, so that both the time between Diciembre’s initial “movement” and the play’s restaging, and the gap between the reporting of the events and their fictionalization, contract; journalism and art intersect in a meditation on the substance of culture.
The tension of the two narratives, masterfully colliding toward the end of the novel, makes the book compulsively readable, but the profundity of its themes and the subtlety with which Alarcòn expresses them makes the book unforgettable.
This is Alarcòn’s third book. His collection of stories, War by Candlelight, and first novel, Lost City Radio, which won the 2009 International Literature Award, earned him the privilege to present his work around the world. Set in an unnamed country, At Night We Walk in Circles is nothing if not universal, and is every bit as much of this moment as it is timeless.
Evan Karp writes columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, and SF Arts. He is the founder and executive director of Quiet Lightning, the founding editor of Litseen, and the creator and host of The Emerald Tablet’s Under the Influence series.