At Night We Walk in Circles
By Kari Heil
The title of the novel At Night We Walk in Circles (2013) by Daniel Alarcón gives a clue about the feeling a person may get from reading it. First let me say: I liked this book, and I recommend it as an interesting piece of reading. But it does confuse, obfuscate, and generally make a person feel a little lost at times. Since Alarcón’s characters are in the dark, figuratively, it only seems appropriate that readers are left a little bit in the dark, too, even in the end of the novel, after a resolution of some of our questions. Alarcón’s characters have a hard time making sense of the situations they find themselves in, so it seems just right that Alarcón relies on misdirection and a non-linear narrative structure in the book.
Who walks in circles in Alarcón’s story? The simple answer is that everyone walks in circles; everyone loses direction in life and ends up someplace they never expected to be. Readers walk in circles, following a winding narrative from a source whose motivation is unclear. The allusive narrator actually presents two related stories in his account. First and foremost, the narrator tells readers about Nelson, a young actor who just recently finished his specialized training at the academy in an unnamed South American city by the ocean. Nelson thinks he is ready to change the world through his art, but lacks motivation, opportunities, and a clear plan in his humdrum life. The other story the narrator presents is that of Henry Nuñez, Nelson’s idol, a middle-aged, has-been actor and playwright who, nearly twenty years before, served a short term in prison for inciting revolution with one of his absurdist productions called The Idiot President.
Early on in the narrative, Nelson meets Henry and Patalarga, Henry’s sidekick and faithful friend from the good old days of doing guerrilla theater, at the auditions for an ill-considered revival tour of The Idiot President. When Nelson wins a role, events are set in motion that lead him literally to suffer for his art. (Look at me, foreshadowing just like Alarcón’s narrator!) In a sense, Nelson inherits Henry’s revolution, but it’s only an echo of the old days, since times have changed most people’s circumstances for the better and they don’t so much need Henry’s “theater for the people.”
On tour after several weeks of intense three-man rehearsals, Nelson, Henry, and Patalarga take a meandering route through the hills, into the mountains, down toward the jungle, turning back again to ascend, stopping here and there in small villages to offer impromptu performances of their minimalist play. The setting probably resembles Alarcón’s native Peru, though he doesn’t specify. Recurring elements appear every single time the troupe enters a town: dusty plaza, hazy heat, humble and tired peasants. This repetition, along with the monotony of the overwhelming natural beauty of the Andes mountain landscape, heightens the sense of the story meandering, the actors wandering, and all of us walking directionless toward what we do not know. For most of the novel, we do not know what happens to Nelson when the tour ends, though we know it is something not good. The setting is disguised as peaceful, but it’s too quiet; it creates a sense of foreboding, of waiting for the ax to fall. There is stillness, but there is also a threatening sense of the cold, remote, severe mountains closing in.
What obscures the meaning in the characters’ situations even more than the literal wandering through the mountain setting is the overlap between real life and playing a role for both Nelson and Henry, the mingling of self and mask. The narrator does not comment on this very much. We find out past mid-way through the story that the narrator is a magazine writer who is only barely acquainted with Nelson but has become interested in investigating his case. But the narrator does not editorialize, and he does not very effectively read the motivations of the players in the action he is piecing together from later interviews and reading Nelson’s journals.
Nelson has been cast in the role of the President’s Idiot Son in The Idiot President, and Henry (the President himself) encourages Nelson to commit fully to his role while on tour and to exist completely in the world of the play. No calls home while on the road, Henry stipulates, though Nelson later finds out that Henry was not serious about that “rule.” As the three-man troupe moves through the loose itinerary of sleepy mountain towns where nothing ever happens, they put on their play for audiences and for themselves. In one village, Nelson falls into another role, one that he can’t separate from himself, a role that becomes his “real life” and has eerie elements and shades of the Idiot Son in it. Alarcón might be suggesting that it’s impossible to distinguish what is “real” in a person and what is simply playing a role or putting on a face for others. Alarcón’s shadowy narrator doesn’t really figure out the difference, and readers may not be satisfied with the final version of Nelson that he offers. I’m still not sure if what Nelson tells the narrator, finally, about his circumstances tastes more of bitterness, truth, or some deranged escape from reality.
I feel like I have to be mysterious in describing the plot because I don’t want to give away anything important and spoil the surprise. It’s a surprise that is a long time coming; Alarcón’s narrator doesn’t fully explain what happens to Nelson until very late in the novel. Though Henry’s story is secondary to Nelson’s, the narrator also keeps some secrets about Henry and drops them into the narrative as he sees fit. For example, after we’ve already formed a solid image of Henry as a pompous, if deflated, man mourning the loss of his passionate and idealistic youth, we find out that he also mourns the loss of someone he loved very much, which changes our impression of him.
Part of the enjoyment of this book is slowly discovering what has happened to Nelson and Henry and why. It’s really intriguing how Alarcón’s narrator weaves in vague references with minute details to very slowly reveal what actually happens to Nelson when he returns from the mountains to the city. And part of the mystery of the novel is why the narrator is so interested in Nelson – and why are we, for that matter? Nelson is not a completely sympathetic character, and yet I was compelled to continue reading to the end to find out the consequences of every action, every choice, every turn of the plot, every degree of the circle.
Alarcón chose his title carefully. He took it from a Latin palindrome, a tricky phrase that reads the same forwards and backwards. This particular palindrome translates roughly into the phrase about walking in circles. It’s amazing that the content of the phrase reflects the Latin form. It’s interesting that in the original Latin, the phrase includes something about being consumed, as Nelson is consumed by a role and ultimately lost in it. Or maybe Nelson has been condemned by his own naïve and foolish choices. It’s unjust and absurd; it makes no sense that this could happen. It’s a mistake, a misunderstanding, a dark farce; it’s based on confusion of reality with supposition. It’s something that would happen in a play.
For the Kiddos
I couldn’t decide which one book from our huge bi-weekly haul from the children’s library to recommend, so I’m going to pick two of my favorites to highlight. First, Don’t Play with Your Food! (2014) by Bob Shea, is a hilarious take on making new friends. The illustrations are bright, bold, and energetic, and the dialogue between a monster named Buddy and some fast-multiplying bunnies is just heart-tickling (that’s heart-warming and funny-bone-tickling at the same time). This book will LIGHT UP YOUR DAY. Second, Weasels (2013) by Elys Dolan is a tale of some lab-coated, small mammals’ bumbling attempts to take over the world with the help of a giant supercomputer. Most of Dolan’s illustrations are two-page spreads, meticulously detailed, with word bubbles to enhance our understanding of the evil plans and hot-drink needs of the weasels. This is a giggler of a book.