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At Night We Walk in Circles

In an unnamed South American country, a young boy comes of age, joins a theater troupe, and is taken on a journey in which art and life become blurred in confusing and violent ways

November 21, 2013

At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcón, Penguin Group, 384 pp.

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Reviewed for The Barnes & Noble Review by Tess Taylor

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A few years ago, in an unforgettable novella, Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész offered a haunting meditation. His spare "Detective Story" depicts a trial taking place in a nameless South American dictatorship, where a member of the former secret police is being questioned at the end of a despotic regime. Under the guise of his testimony, the policeman-turned-prisoner narrates the story of his involvement in the torture of a wealthy family who seemed to be plotting against the government. What emerges is a tale of ambivalent complicity: a story that asks not whether the narrator is innocent but what – in the face of unjust regimes – it means to be innocent at all.

It was impossible not to think of Kertész's novella while reading Daniel Alarcón's latest novel, At Night We Walk in Circles. This was certainly because some of Alarcón's setup eerily echoes Kertész's: Alarcón's novel also takes place in an unnamed South American country where the shadows of a recent violent regime are fading. An unnamed narrator, whose circumstances are not revealed until two-thirds of the way through the book, describes the conditions under which a young boy named Nelson comes of age, joins a theater troupe, and is eventually taken on a journey in which art and life become blurred in confusing and ultimately violent ways. And, as in Kertész, the narrator's own situation eventually raises questions about how and why we make stories – and at what cost.

But while Kertész's novella was spare and fast-moving, Alarcón's novel is, as its title suggests, full of layered divagations, reflections, and mirrors, circuitous routes around a city and then a country, and even, by implication, the world. The circles being made are also between the theatrical and the real, between history and memory. At the center of these rings is Nelson, a budding actor and playwright who, because of his father's death, has been unable to move to the US to pursue his career. Nelson's childhood and his parents' generation were shaped by internal war: Nelson's father called this time "the anxious years" – but now his country, if not wholly prosperous, is at at peace in name if not in fact. The country is also being "reimagined" in ways that themselves feel theatrical: Malls fill in detonation zones. There are still crimes and poverty and emigration; there are still drug dealers and jails, but the worst of what had come before seems to be over. 

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