Actors play roles. When the line between role and reality becomes blurred, however, an actor’s life may be at risk in Daniel Alarcón’s new book. That the actor’s identity — and perhaps everybody’s identity — is also up for grabs is the compelling thesis at the heart of “At Night We Walk in Circles.”
Nelson, the young actor at the center of Alarcón’s second novel, has reached the age of 23 with limited options. Raised in an unnamed South American country that has only recently emerged from a vaguely defined civil war, he has been cheated of the opportunities afforded his older brother, who was able to emigrate to the United States.
Nelson finds solace, if not escape, studying drama, specifically the works of Diciembre, a legendary theater collective whose main playwright, Henry Nuñez, was imprisoned during the war because of a controversial work. So when the collective sets out to stage a revival of the play, “The Idiot President,” Nelson auditions for and wins the role of Alejo, the president’s son.
Even though he must leave his lover for what is supposed to be a full-immersion experience as the three-person cast tours the countryside, Nelson embraces the opportunity to work with his hero Henry, who will play the president, and to perform in mountain villages where “all life becomes theater, and all theater Beckettian.”
Throughout, Nelson is expected to inhabit the role of Alejo. What he doesn’t realize is that as the tour progresses he will also assume other roles — including that of Henry’s dead lover for the man’s senile elderly mother, a role that will place him in grave danger. As survivors of trauma often feel compelled to reenact their disasters, Nelson and Henry will end up acting out increasingly personal scripts as the tour — and Nelson’s life — begin to veer off the rails.
Related in the third-person by a young journalist who appears to be writing an article about Nelson, the narration adds to the sense of instability. Time becomes as elastic as identity, as the narrator steps out of the story’s action to interview participants after the fact and eventually insert himself. “I was also once a brown-haired boy with thin legs and a bony chest,” he writes. “It wasn’t me hovering in the background of that old photograph, of course, but . . . [i]t could’ve been.”
By the time the narrator enters the infamous prison, Collectors, where Henry was held, we, like the inmates, are pacing in circles, no longer sure what centers us or where, if anywhere, we are headed.
Alarcón, a Fulbright scholar, Guggenheim fellow, and Whiting award winner, was born in Lima and his work is informed by his South American heritage. Politically, there’s the history of civil unrest, of terror and repression. Stylistically, his work recalls Bolaño or even Borges, as touches of the surreal unbalance seemingly realistic scenes in the mountains and the prison and persona shift and change.
Alarcón’s theme is clear early on. Identity is fluid, he shows us, shaped by time, place, and circumstance as well as our actions. It is a disturbing thought in this age of self-definition, but the author builds to it in a credible and chilling fashion.
One casualty of this mutability, however, is reader sympathy. The different voices — the narrator’s “interviews” with the supporting characters — highlight facets of Nelson, rather than one distinct man. Nelson may or may not be the sum of these parts and that leaves readers little to connect with overall. That’s not a major drawback, as Alarcón certainly creates sympathy for the young actor in various scenes and has, perhaps, built something greater. But this is a book for the head, rather than the heart — an intellectual puzzle ultimately as disorienting as a night in Collectors.