Tragedy, horror, and war demand a different sort of art. Writers who take up such subjects cannot be concerned only with beauty. They must balance aesthetics against ethics, and ask questions like, How do I write about someone who is dead? What gives me the right to tell his story? The literature of witness, concerned with the fate of the victims, can sometimes even seem to be stealing their narratives.
Daniel Alarcón’s new novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, seems to wonder about the power of theater. During blackouts, in pitch dark auditoriums, throughout the long nights of military curfew, war-weary audiences listen to “the spectral voices of the actors emerging from the limitless black.” Are these the voices of the dead? The magic of performance seems almost capable of summoning up angry ghosts, personal and collective, for a much needed reckoning. But then the lights come on. The actors on the stage are all human, some portly, others aging, but no more ghosts than you or I, and the spell is broken. Alarcón’s novel tells the story of a largely forgotten troupe of actors, called Diciembre, that revive a classic production, a piece of subversive political theater entitled, The Idiot President. During the civil war in a nameless South American country, a period nicely euphemized as “the anxious years,” the play’s author and star was imprisoned and called a terrorist. But times have changed, 15 years have passed, and now the troupe is organizing a tour of the highlands, a three-man show playing in village squares, homes, school auditoriums, and just about anywhere else they can find an audience. These are the same small towns, presumably, where rebels were once active. But the shared ghosts of the nation, now deluded by “the narcotic effects of peace,” are not the only specters that haunt The Idiot President. The play was last performed in a notorious prison and all but one of those involved, both actors and spectators, died soon after, when whole sections were “razed, bombed and burned by the army.”
War and its lingering traumas have been Alarcón’s subjects before. Both of his previous books, Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight explore the emotional and psychological after-effects of a similarly described civil conflict. Lost City Radio follows a radio program that hosts callers searching for information about missing loved ones. Mass displacement and migration to the capital during the conflict have left countless refugees adrift, and the show often manages to reconnect families. There was a program like this in Peru, in fact. But the novel turns displacement into more than just a political problem. The host, Norma, lost her own husband under mysterious circumstances. The trope of the missing person, of the loved one who has vanished without any explanation, describes the malaise of an entire country, mired in uncertainty about its past and unable to move on. The metaphor is apt; several South American countries still suffer from a legacy of desaparecidos, conflict victims whose stories remain unknown. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been marching for more than 36 years now, a powerful symbol for human rights advocates in the region. Moving on is not really something you can expect from them. How do you move on when it’s your husband or your son who is missing?
Displacement troubles the characters of At Night We Walk in Circles also, but the circumstances have changed. Now, not all the missing people are war refugees. Throughout the novel, the protagonist struggles with the temptation to follow his brother to the United States, where he has more or less disappeared. In the small mountain towns the actors visit, there are no young men. They have all moved to the city to look for work, leaving behind mothers and sisters who remember them fondly, cherish their belongings, and sometimes don’t ever hear from them again. This kind of economic displacement is common all over Latin America, though here in the United States we tend to think of the immigrants themselves more often than the families they have left behind. The central episode of At Night We Walk in Circles — when an elderly mother struggles to grasp the truth about her missing son, whom she believes has been living outside of Los Angeles for 15 years, working as an auto mechanic — will strike a chord far beyond countries recovering from war. Estrangement from our loved ones is hardly a rare predicament. With the character of the abandoned, grieving mother, Alarcón gets at the heart of the drama, the emotional core of the displacement problem. Because, even if a son sends money home every week, he still isn’t there. His clothes still sit in the drawers, eaten by moths, his bedroom covered with dust.
That’s where Alarcón’s troupe of actors takes us, into the missing man’s home, to sit with his mother at the dining room table, look at the family photo albums, and even spend the night in the son’s long empty bed. Perhaps they can even help her grieve, just as they hope that taking The Idiot President on tour might perhaps help a troubled nation face its painful history. Political theater has often set out to awaken its audience, to curtail their lethargy, apathy, or amnesia, using performance to spur reflection. Diciembre’s free-wheeling production would doubtlessly have appealed to Bertolt Brecht, particularly on the night when the lead actor paused partway through the performance to take questions from the crowd, in an impromptu “presidential press conference.” But Alarcón doesn’t seem to believe in the “therapeutic” potential of art, and he contrasts this kind of idealism with an alternative approach; the narrator is unable to break away from a rigid commitment to journalistic fact. He would have us believe that every scene happened just so, that he is only reporting on real events. Every conversation is supposedly a careful transcription, recounted to the narrator by the various characters during a series of interviews done after the fact. The entire narrative is presented as testimony, no matter how implausible it seems. The problem is that a novel is not testimony. Aesthetics might not be as weighty a concern as ethics, but a balance must be struck. And the narrator interjects snippets from his interviews into the action ad nauseum, as though readers would hesitate to believe him otherwise. Novels don’t need to establish sources, they produce a different kind of truth. This narrator, however, would have you believe that only journalists can be trusted to tell a story.
But when the narrator arrives at his final interview, and we expect to hear the testimony of the protagonist, conspicuously absent throughout the rest of the novel, the journalist fails just as spectacularly as the actors did before him. Alarcón’s artists seem incapable of satisfying their obligation to the truth. Though At Night We Walk in Circles seems to be a novel about the ways in which art can confront social and psychological trauma, in fact, it is about the ways that art fails to do so. Henry, the formerly imprisoned actor and writer, has refused to write about his prison experience for more than a decade. The memory of his prison companions still haunts him. His friends all tell him he should write about it, “‘It will be therapeutic,’ these friends of his argued. To which Henry could only respond: ‘For whom?’” By the end of the novel, he claims he is ready to start writing this play, the “prison story.” But his co-author is gone, and his pleas for help resound with desperation. “Just ask him,” he said. “Will you ask him?” The reader knows better than to believe a masterpiece is coming.
This is perhaps not cynicism so much as realism. How can a performance help a grieving mother overcome the loss of her beloved son? Art is not therapy, Alarcón’s novel suggests. Writing is not a form of healing, ambiguously defined. Respect for the dead, and for those who still mourn them, should keep us from uttering such sentimental banalities. In the end, the entire project of this novel is made to seem suspect, something like theft. So what are we to make of its enigmatic title? In “Collectors,” the prison referred to constantly, like a mirror image of the capital city, and of the entire dysfunctional society, the inmates walk circles in the yard for their nightly exercise. The art of witness, too, must forever keep circling back, confronting the past, trying to establish the truth of what has happened. This is the form of grief and recovery. And in Alarcón’s novel it is a Sisyphean labor, repeated each night, forever, because you can never go anywhere but in circles.