Daniel Alarcón mines culture in 'Walks in Circles'

Daniel Alarcón mines culture in ‘Walks in Circles’

When Daniel Alarcón toured the world for his first novel, the 2009 International Literature Award-winning “Lost City Radio,” he spoke with many people in rural South America and realized something interesting: When he asked people in the city where they were from, they often replied with the name of their parents’ town, even if they had never been there.

“They would say, ‘Oh, no, here in the provinces. We’re from here.’ And the nation as this imaginary collection of different places really only exists close to the center of power,” he said by phone. “No one could really point to where the heart of the country was: Is it next to the institutions that pop up next to these artificial borders, or is it out in the countryside where things are still authentic and quote-unquote real?”

This question is at the heart of Alarcón’s new novel, “At Night We Walk in Circles,” which begins when fledgling actor Nelson gets the part of a lifetime: touring the country with his hero Henry Nuñez, in a revival of the legendary play that put Nuñez in prison under terrorist charges.

“Nelson leaving the city is something he’s never done and he’s very excited about it,” Alarcón said. “And he feels like he’s going to get to someplace real, and in some ways he does, and in some ways he doesn’t.”

As they set out, Nelson is forced to leave his life behind and “give in to the world of the play.” At tremendous sacrifice he does this, but as the tour goes deeper into the provinces, Nelson begins to doubt the wisdom in his hero’s demand.

The story is revealed by a mysterious narrator whose own story becomes increasingly central to the novel. This enables Alarcón to examine what he has previously referred to, in an interview with Switchback, as the “echo” that exists between a culture and the memory of a culture. The tension of the two narratives makes the book compulsively readable, but the profundity of its themes and the subtlety with which Alarcón expresses them makes the book unforgettable.

“In a novel, you have infinite time to investigate and tell a story,” Alarcón said, “which, as a journalist, is never the case. It becomes this kind of pet project to try to tell the story of this character, Nelson, and to tell it we point to lists, in a polyphonic way, relying on stories from all different aspects of Nelson’s life.”


Daniel Alarcón: 7:30 p.m., Thursday (Nov. 14). The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., S.F. (415) 863-8688. . Also 7 p.m. Friday. Copperfield’s Books, 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. (707) 762-0563.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Adrian Kinloch