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

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

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. 

Or is it? The nation seems to have fallen victim to a certain nervous aimlessness. A group of young people romanticize some of the revolutionary actions of their parents. Among these is Nelson, who attaches himself particularly to the legend of the theater troupe Deciembre, a group made famous both for its show "The Idiot President" and for the arrest of its lead actor and founder, Henry Núñez – a man who has been much changed by his time in prison.

Nelson, who has followed this group with a heady mixture of blurred memory and obsession, finds that Deciembre is staging a comeback tour and holding auditions for a new actor. Nelson steps onto the stage and becomes their pick. In doing so he unwittingly becomes an actor not only in his own nostalgic fantasy but in Núñez's struggle to make sense of his own past. Deciembre embarks on a tour of the country – one that takes Nelson out of town and gives him a chance to see the stage of his wider world. But when  Núñez, Nelson, and Deciembre reach the small town of Núñez's former lover, Nelson is called on to step into a role he had never imagined – one that has consequences no one could foresee.

Like Kertész's book, the narrated main tale and the circular stories it contains make us look closely at the roles each character plays. We are forced to reckon with the wider forces that make those roles possible and even necessary. The book is also full of reverberations – the sense that the land and its shapes are made by economic forces, by poverty, by the pull toward emigration.

As it travels, the book also pulls toward its strange, uneasy end. Alarcón has salted his work with intellectual puns and pleasures, shapes that come back later in puzzling loops. He begins with a quote from Guy deBord that says "the individual's own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him." The famed prison in Alarcón's troubled country is called Collectors, but the narrator, paradoxically, is the one trying to collect the most perfect story of what eventually happens to Nelson. Oddly, what comes to imprison Nelson in the end feels eerily familiar, part of a chain, or the end or beginning of a cycle. The guard in Nelson's prison is called Espejo, which means "mirror." And indeed, when the end comes, it feels like an eerie reflection of the beginning.

Indeed, the wider circles beyond the stage and the story are the world, and the kinds of trade routes it demands of young men from small, troubled South American countries. At one point, one of these young men – the star of Núñez's imagination – is ensnared in the drug trade. "He never considered the consequences, not because he was reckless but because what he was doing was normal. Everyone was doing it. He was only dimly aware that it was not allowed," says Alarcón.

What are the consequences of an action? What is normal? Where do such stories begin? In a world of echoes and mirrors, Alarcón leaves us pondering.

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