Bookforum Talks with Daniel Alarcón

Daniel Alarcón

At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón’s new novel, is set in an unidentified South American country of great contrasts, turmoil, and beauty. The plot revolves around Nelson, a young actor who is selected to go on an improbable tour to the provinces for an anniversary revival of “The Idiot President,” a absurdist play written by Henry Nuñez, one of the leaders of the long-defunct insurgent theater group Diciembre. In an intricate narrative that is part love story, part travel log, and part thriller, the characters of At Night We Walk in Circles are gradually consumed in a vortex where life and art become indistinguishable. Alarcón—who was born in Perú and raised in the United States—was chosen as one of the best 20 writers under 40 by The New Yorker magazine. He is the author a previous novel and several short story collections, and is one of the founders of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish storytelling radio program focused on the Latin American community across countries. Alarcón took some time in the middle of his ongoing book tour to talk to Bookforum about his novel and his fortunate position on the margin between North and South American cultures.

Bookforum: When I first read At Night We Walk in Circles I noticed that the rhythm and the turns of phrase in the prose feel like Spanish at times. Then, at a recent reading in New York, you mentioned that you think of the story in Spanish and then write it in English. Could you tell us a little more about how this works?

Alarcón: I hear the dialogue in Spanish, but not so much the narration; the voice of the narrator comes easier to me in English for sure. It’s so natural to me that I don’t think of it much, it’s just part of my writing process now. When I’m writing about Latin America or stories that I imagine are happening in Spanish, they don’t require any more concentration than any kind writing, which is difficult enough. To me it’s just a matter of carefully projecting the way the characters talk, but I don’t necessarily think of it in terms of the narration having the momentum of Spanish. Maybe it’s something that other Spanish speakers will recognize, but for me it’s happening at an unconscious level.

About the narrator in this novel… Why did you choose to tell the story through the voice of a journalist who is for the most part emotionally detached from it? What about the story—or your approach to it—do you think demanded that kind of distance?

The narrator is detached in the sense that he’s not living the consequences and the ramifications of the actions that are being narrated, but he has an intellectual curiosity about the story and is very much consumed, almost obsessed, by it. Like a lot of things that happen when you’re writing, it was partly deliberate, partly intuition, and partly a complete mystery. The more I wrote, the more I knew that I had to answer the question of who this narrator was. I knew the answer had to be a very good one. So did what anyone would do, I postponed making that decision, in part because I was scared of doing the wrong thing. I think it paid off, but it was a very stressful time of pushing forward in the novel and not knowing exactly how I was going to resolve that question.

Because the story is reconstructed from the main character’s diaries, testimonies, and reports, this sometimes gives the narrator the power to act in an omniscient way, particularly in the use of foreshadowing. Was this meant to produce a specific impression/effect on the reader?

The simplest way to tell a story, a conventionally narrated novel, is the omniscient third person. What I ended up creating is a hybrid, an omniscient first who, as you pointed out, exists between omniscience and investment. It was also a game and a technique I was playing with my characters and with myself.

Would you say that, in keeping with journalistic bend of the narration, the novel aims more at showing an uncompromised picture of censorship and the derisory justice system in a South American Country during a time period rather than at being a direct political critique?

Honestly it’s neither. I think at a very basic level I’m trying to tell a story that I hope people will read until the end; a complex and subtle story that is somewhat mysterious. There’s definitely an atmosphere of political tension in the background, but I’m not trying to write a political parable. I’m trying to tell the story of Nelson and the rest of the characters, of how their paths cross and the way that the past controls and transforms Nelson’s present. There is a lot of political content in my work, and I’m certainly someone who pays attention to politics, but it’s never in the foreground in my writing. For me, it’s more important to think about the consistency and the verisimilitude of the world I’m creating.

The theme of art imitating life imitating art.., and the confusion between what’s “real” and what’s performance has many variations throughout the novel. Was this something you had in mind at the outset?

I don’t ever plan and I don’t ever know where I’m going. I think one of the magical things about writing a novel or any work of art is the plan that reveals itself while you were improvising. There was always a structure there; it’s just that for many many months I couldn’t see it. It’s almost like the Michelangelo metaphor about finding the sculpture that’s embedded within the piece of marble. There’s something of that in the way I work; I kind of trust that I’m going to get somewhere, but it’s only as I push further along that I start to see the themes and images that repeat themselves kind of organically. Art imitating life and life imitating art (and the fluid boundary between them) is absolutely one of the important tropes of the novel, and it’s something I discovered as I went along.

Some critics have pointed out that the novel presents a stark and unadorned reality. I think this is true when the narration is set in an urban landscape and in jail. However, when the characters go on the theater touring trip to the rural areas of the country, I felt that there was also a mythical quality to these towns in the middle of nowhere (the narrator even mentions several times that these settings seem to exist outside of time) and a very subtle dreamlike coloring to them, which at times reminded me Juan Rulfo. Am I completely over interpreting here?

I don’t know of you’ve been to Lima, but it can be a very monotonous city in terms of color and light; the weather is the same for eight months of the year, almost always grey and overcast. When you leave Lima and you go into the mountains of the Andes, which is a place of total extremes, it’s as if someone turned on the color. Also, all these towns are in many instances described from the point of view of Nelson, and he’s a guy who’s seeing them for the first time and doesn’t have a vocabulary to describe them, the mountains—for example—are registered as either big, medium, or small in his diaries. He focuses on everything and doesn’t know which details are important. I think often places that we don’t know very well can take on an ambiance of mysticism, precisely because they are foreign to us. The city, which is so well known by most of the characters, can’t contain mysticism anymore.

Nelson’s destiny is determined by the fact that for one reason or another he couldn’t migrate to the United States. Do you think growing up here gave you some advantages to understand and write about your home country?

Growing up in the United States made me an outsider, and I think that to go to Perú and be an outsider with access is a really special privilege. I’m Peruvian but I’m not, I’m American but I’m not… I really like that position, because it means that when I go to Lima I don’t take anything for granted and I’m comfortable asking stupid questions. I’m full of curiosity and I always want to know more, so when I’m there I’m really ok with people treating me like a foreigner.

In your opinion, what makes a writer “authentic” in a generation that, like yours, has grown up in a cross-cultural world?

That’s certainly something that is at play in the novel… I really dislike the word authenticity though—I just don’t believe in it. It’s a word that is always being reimagined and refurbished, and I worry when someone uses it because it implies a kind of stasis; like there’s one legitimate version of Peruvian culture and therefore it cannot change. That’s completely false and unnatural, and it’s not at all how culture works. I’m weary of romanticizing any version of the past or creating “authentic image” of what a place is supposed to be because culture is infinitely malleable and versions of things will constantly be reinventing themselves. I probably occasionally get cultural details wrong, and perhaps some people will get mad… But do I care? Not so much.

As a writer, would you say that you’re influenced by a specific literary tradition?

I’m really not… I’m influenced by everything that I read and consume as an artist, as a reader, watcher of films, and someone who appreciates music. But I don’t think I’m well read or knowledgeable enough to say that I’m responding to a literary tradition. I’ve sort of settled on Chekhov as one of my models, but in conjunction with numerous other ones, Roberto Bolaño would be another. I’m also really interested in the styles of Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith, even if what they do wouldn’t come natural to me. Sometimes the people that you most admire aren’t necessarily your influences.

Alejandra Russi a freelance writer based in Manhattan. Follow @RussiAleja.