Fourth Estate, £18.99. Order at the discounted price of£14.99 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

At Night We Walk in Circles, By Daniel Alarcon: Book review - A hyped but graceful second novel that aims for the head over the heart

 

Daniel Alarcón's second novel arrives in Britain heralded by the familiar sounds of hype. The New Yorker listed him among their best novelists under 40, and he is one of 'Bogota's 39' which promoted rising stars from 17 Latin American nations. His writing appears in the usual hip locales: McSweeney's, n+1, and Harper's.

It is, then, tempting to read the opening chapters of At Night We Walk in Circles with feelings of pre-emptive déjà vu. There are cool, teasing epigraphs – Ionesco and, more pointedly, Guy Debord – that seem de rigueur in contemporary American fiction. The plot blends art, politics, love, and friendship into a smooth Kafkaesque paste: an avant garde theatre troupe, Diciembre, tours an unnamed Latin American country. High brow meditations shadow box with a murder mystery that keeps the mental wheels turning along with the pages.

Alarcón's ingenious, looped narrative carries echoes of Beckett, Borges and Bolaño. There are hints of Kundera in the concise treatises on erotics, rebellion and laughter. There is even, perhaps, whispers of Woolf's Jacob's Room: our central, enigmatic hero (a naïve actor called Nelson) is reconstructed by the fragmentary accounts of others, including a not unimpartial narrator.

But as the story unfurls, Alarcón proves that he is not just another young American hoping that immersion in modern masterpieces (often in translation) will lend him gravitas. Born in Peru, the probable inspiration of his unidentified setting, he knows his terrain intimately: the vivid scenes inside the grim Corrections prison were researched first-hand, and linger in the memory.

Yet, this is a novel that feels no compunction to declare its political, cultural and geographical contexts explicitly, but expresses them instead through character, action and description: the protagonists in conflict with their desires and histories; the small towns with dwindling, aging populations whose children have fled to the cities; the prisons filled with the homeless, the terrifying and the excluded.

In this context, Alarcón's mood of apparent vagueness is not so much a tilt at universality but an aesthetic and philosophical end in itself. The reader might begin by asking, not unreasonably, where on earth are we? But we end by realising this might just be the national anthem of Alarcón's thinly-veiled Peru.

The mood of stasis is conferred, as Alarcón's title suggests, through repetition. The theatrical tour is itself a revival of a once-controversial production called The Idiot President that landed its author and lead actor, Henry Nuñes, in prison. The play's return is portrayed, via a series of overlapping episodes, as a fluid relationship between past and present: Henry's memories of incarceration intersect with Nelson's torrid romantic life.

This mood of continual slippage is not just temporal. All Alarcón's characters shuttle disorientingly between art and life until it is hard to distinguish reality from performance, transcendence from escapism. Everyday existence is filled with fictions that individuals enact for happiness and, more often, for survival.

In the wonderful closing chapter, Alarcón expands these dramatised ironies to encompass an entire nation, whose illusion of progress fails to conceal a divided, dispirited people. "One could not enter the world of a play", the idealistic Nelson concludes bleakly. "One could not escape one's life."

At Night We Walk in Circles offers a heartening example of an author overcoming that difficult second-novel syndrome. It has its drawbacks: Alarcón aims more for the head than the heart, perhaps. But this intelligent account of wasted lives and enduring dreams announces an impressive talent that should endure long after Alarcón has outgrown those lists of young novelists.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor