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.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'