The Revenant’s Theater: On Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles


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.

A Literary Hedonist In The Classroom: On Professor Borges

- | 7

A puzzling entry in an old encyclopedia, a country not to be found on any map, the subsequent search through libraries, book stores, atlases, and obscure travel memoirs, leading to the discovery of a centuries-old secret society: this is not the plot of some paperback thriller you bought in an airport. It is the outline of a classic story by Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine author with a taste for impossible libraries, unlikely literary discoveries, and esoteric history. What saves it, what keeps “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” from becoming hackneyed or pulp, is Borges’s vast learning and irrepressible erudition. He seems to have read everything, from the Eleatic aporiae and the Gnostic heresiarchs, to Chesterton’s endless volumes. His stories are often about books, about their power and danger, a subject he knew as well as anyone. So when he writes about discovering unimaginable encyclopedias, or fragments of archaic poems, and feeling like “the secret portals of heaven” had opened up over his head, we get the same feeling.

Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, the recently translated collection of lectures that Borges gave during the fall of 1966 at the University of Buenos Aires, is itself an unlikely discovery. The original tapes of the lectures were lost, recorded over, or misplaced. But now, thanks to transcripts and some impressive editing by a pair of Borges scholars, it seems like the blind professor is giving his seminar on English Literature again, as if we had stumbled upon one of those eddies in the circularity of time that he loved to conjecture about. The voice we find in Professor Borges is less formal than in Borges’s essays, though much of what he spoke about in class found its way into his non-fiction. In fact, reading his essays is a better way to approach much of this material. They are more felicitously composed, while these lectures feel more extemporaneous. But the informal character of Professor Borges is also refreshing. The book is lighter reading. The lectures were meant for undergraduates, and like any good teacher, Borges tried to inspire his students with his own enthusiasm. He explained why he loved a particular passage or a poem so that they might share the feeling with him. There are dull moments, when he repeats himself or grows vague, that are hard to imagine ever finding in his prose. But there are also moments in this book when Borges’s love for his subject matter seems irresistible.

The encyclopedic Argentine taught English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires for more than 20 years, beginning in 1956. And the first thing that will surprise anyone curious about his seminar is where he starts: he spends seven of 25 classes discussing works written in Anglo-Saxon, a language that has almost nothing in common with modern English. This era is remembered mostly for the epic poem, Beowulf, though Borges’s students learned much more. He had already published several volumes of translations into Spanish, and could recite from memory lines like “Helmum behongen, hildebordum, beorthum byrnum, swa he bena wæs.” Not much literature remains from the Anglo-Saxon world, which lasted roughly from 449 to 1066, just four codices, or manuscripts of compiled poems. One of these manuscripts was found in a library in Italy in 1822, a literary discovery like those Borges often imagined in his fictions. In the preface to his Breve Antología Anglosajona (A Brief Anglo-Saxon Anthology), he described it this way, “About two hundred years ago it was discovered that English Literature contained a kind of secret chamber, akin to the subterranean gold guarded by the serpent of myth. That ancient gold was the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons.”

Borges describes this esoteric literature with fluency and ease. He glosses over the historical context gracefully, for he can quote Tacitus from memory just as easily as The Venerable Bede. But his interest in the poems is literary, as he makes clear in the very first moments of his course. He wants to explain why they are beautiful, and his little descriptive touches render them more vivid. Consider this description of the 10th-century poem, The Battle of Maldon. Borges doesn’t hesitate to speak admiringly of it, or to add details and comparisons that help bring the scene to life:
The fragment begins with the words “brocen wurde,” “was broken.” And we’ll never know what was broken…Then the narration begins, but we don’t know who the subject is. We imagine it to be the earl, because he orders his men to fall out, to spur their horses on, to whip their horses so they will advance. He is obviously speaking to a group of warriors, who were probably peasants, fisherman, woodsmen, and among them are the earl’s guards. Then the earl tells them to form a line. Far off, they will see the tall boats of the Vikings, those boats with the dragon on the prow and the striped sails, and the Norwegian Vikings, who have already landed. Then there appears in the scene — because this poem is very beautiful — a young man, whom, we are told, is offan mæg, “of the family of Offa.”…And this young man is, as we can see, a young aristocrat passing through; he is not thinking about war because he has a falcon on his fist; that is, he is doing what is called falconry. But when the earl issues these orders, the young man understands that the lord will not abide cowardice, and he joins the battle. And something happens, something that is realistic and has symbolic value, something a movie director would use now. The young man realizes the situation is serious, so he lets his beloved falcon (the epitaph “beloved” is very rare in this iron poetry of the Saxons) fly off into the forest, and he joins the battle…In fact, the young man is later killed.
Professor Borges contains many similar off-the-cuff narrations. We must remember that, when he gave these lectures, his vision was already failing. He could no longer read and he was quoting from memory, without the use of notes. The reader may wish for more analysis of the poem, but Borges was trying to entice his students to fall in love with it, to go study the material for themselves. What a pleasure to listen to an expert discuss this archaic poetry in such an unacademic, captivating style, like an old raconteur.

The superstition of the mysterious double, called the doppelganger in Germany, the fetch in Scotland; the idea that history repeats itself cyclically, which Borges liked to call the eternal return, or circular time; the book (or library) as metaphor for the universe; many of Borges’s favorite topics come up in these lectures. It is tempting to say that he even reveals some of his sources, the authors who inspired concepts that seem so Borgesian to us today, but this kind of speculation is pointless. Were esoteric medieval bestiaries, which often included fantastical and legendary creatures, the inspiration for his Book of Imaginary Beings? Impossible to say and probably not worth worrying about. But one of the best things about Professor Borges is the way he draws connections between authors and ideas so freely, comparing the Anglo-Saxon description of a panther (a creature those people had never seen) with a line from T.S. Eliot that has always perplexed him, for example, or the description of a whale with a line from Paradise Lost. The links are often personal, sometimes unlikely, but they seem sincere, and you get a sense of why he liked what he liked.

Another surprising thing about Professor Borges is how much material he skips over, effectively jumping straight from the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, to Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. He lingers on Boswell’s biography, tells the story of James Macpherson and his apocryphal Ossian, gives us the highlights of the Romantic poets, and then goes straight to the 19th century. This is not a comprehensive survey of English Literature so much as a guide to Borges’s tastes, and a series of opportunities for him to be brilliant, like in this speech on James Boswell’s role as a biographer:
There is a Hindu school of philosophy that says we are not the actors in our lives, but rather the spectators…I, for example, was born on the same day as Jorge Luis Borges, exactly the same day. I have seen him be ridiculous in some situations, pathetic in others. And, as I have always had him in front of me, I have ended up identifying with him. According to this theory, in other words, the I would be double: there is a profound I, and this I is identified with — though separate from — the other.
Whatever Professor Borges lacks in the detail of its analyses and the grace of its prose, it makes up for with these moments of lucidity, with brilliantly drawn connections and the teacher’s own overwhelming enthusiasm. Though nowhere near as coherent and powerful as his non-fiction — if you haven’t read it yet, go right now — this book seems to offer a secret and impossible window through the years, turning us into unlikely spectators.

“Reading should be a form of happiness,” Borges said in a famous interview given in 1978. “I believe that the phrase ‘obligatory reading’ is a contradiction in terms; reading should not be obligatory. Should we ever speak of ‘obligatory pleasure’? What for? Pleasure is not obligatory.” Few writers can claim to have read as much as Borges did, and there are almost no other writers whose imagination was so fixed on literature, on books, and on reading. But even though he taught at a university for decades, Borges refused to consider studying literature work; he wanted his students to enjoy reading. He chose reading for pleasure over the kind of “sad university-style reading” that emphasizes the importance of citations, references, and footnotes. We can’t help being impressed by the incredible array of books and authors Borges discusses in his fictions and his essays, but we must remember that he read them because he loved them, because when he opened up those volumes he felt the “secret portals of heaven” opening up over his head. This blind librarian, teacher, and brilliant author was a self-proclaimed literary hedonist. Punctilious professors take note.

The Young Magician, Practicing His Tricks

- | 1

The precocious teenage poet who narrates parts of Roberto Bolaño’s novel, The Savage Detectives, has an encyclopedic knowledge of esoteric poetry terms, and loves to quiz people on the difference between tetrastichs, zéjels, proceleusmatics, and molossi. But early in the book, this young intellectual has an encounter which is more visceral than cerebral. He is sneaking through the decrepit men’s room of a dive bar in Mexico City when a voice calls his name from within an impenetrable cloud of marijuana smoke.

“Poet García Madero,” the stranger says. “Your penis… It’s hanging out.”

Young García Madero has been fooling around with one of the waitresses in a back room and has just narrowly escaped an encounter with her boyfriend, forgetting, in the rush of things, to put the car back in the garage. And it just so happens that two of his friends, for whom he has been searching all over the city, are ensconced in a corner, hidden behind a billowing chimney of Acapulco Gold. There is more than comedy to the scene. Exposed throbbing adolescent desire is Bolaño’s subject. Here, poetry and sex are linked, and rebellion is the finest muse. The two veiled figures are the founders of an iconoclastic poetry movement, archetypal romantic outlaws who break with every convention and are idealized by their followers like mythic heroes, but they are also just a pair of kids turning their angst into art.

They call themselves Visceral Realists. But they have no dogma, style or poetic philosophy. They simply insist on a complete rejection of authority, literary or otherwise, and they spend most of their time stealing books, going to bars, talking about poetry (not writing it), smoking weed, and trying to get laid. We laugh, but their movement is only kind of a joke. Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and all the other great vanguard Art movements of the twentieth century began by trying to shock established tastes, showing an anesthetized art world what was “real” with a visceral blow. And Bolaño’s avatars draw their inspiration straight from this tradition: they are “detectives” in one sense because they search out and interview aging members of the Estridentistas, a movement active in Mexico during the 1920’s, somewhat akin to Italian Futurism. Most of all, they are chasing after an entirely forgotten poet, who left only a single, mystifying poem/drawing behind her before disappearing into the desert of Northern Mexico, where we imagine a treasure-trove of undiscovered poetry waiting to be found and read.

Readers of Spanish will know that there is no shortage of Mexican poetry yet to be translated, a real-life literary trove of authors who are beloved and classic there, though most English readers will never have heard of them. Bolaño himself has enjoyed more success in the English-speaking world than any other Latin American author in half a century. Since his death ten years ago, more than a dozen of his books have appeared in English, including a number of pieces unpublished during his lifetime, culled from a seemingly bottomless hoard of material. This July, a substantial collection of his poetry translated into English by Laura Healy will be released under the title The Unknown University. New Directions, the publisher, has long been a leading purveyor of books translated from Spanish, including lots of poetry. The Unknown University came out in Spanish in 2007, and it corresponds to a manuscript Bolaño typed in 1993, the earliest pieces of which come from a version subtitled, “poems 1978-1981.” Bolaño had already left Mexico when he wrote these poems. They are not from his “Infrarealist” years. But it is his earliest work published in English to date, and fans of The Savage Detectives will hope to find in it some hints of what the real Visceral Realist poetry was like.

The unprecedented success of Bolaño’s masterpiece – which people will still be reading many years after you and I and everyone we know is gone and forgotten – likely derives at least in part from the way it glorifies and mythologizes the author’s own history. Modern readers like to read fiction as autobiography. We are obsessed with the author’s life, and he becomes a product, a kind of brand. We imagine Bolaño himself as an outlaw poet, just as he meant us to do. The Savage Detectives is designed to invoke this response. That’s why it’s written as a series of eyewitness testimonials circling around the two main characters, but never slipping into their actual voices, a trick which ends up making them seem larger than life. The story is partially true. In 1976, Bolaño wrote a “first Infrarealist manifesto,” reminiscent of Andre Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto. He was part of a group of splenetic young poets who crashed literary gatherings in Mexico City and, purportedly, once even threatened to kidnap the great caudillo of Mexican Literature himself, Octavio Paz. He also published interviews with three Estridentistas in Paz’s magazine, Plural. But the effect of The Savage Detectives is to blur the line between history and fiction, to envelop whatever Bolaño and his friends actually did in Mexico in the 1970’s in a self-aggrandizing, romanticized cloud of smoke – a cloud which is beautifully written, and a lot of fun to inhale too. The careful reader sees that this is a brilliant ruse: Belano the fictional prodigy stands in for Bolaño the author, and we imagine all of his poetry, written so many years ago in a notebook lost somewhere in Mexico, must have been really good.

But it turns out that Bolaño’s juvenile writing reads very much like juvenile writing. Though he was in his twenties when he wrote these poems, many still reek of angsty teenager, and I’m not talking about Rimbaud. There’s some real poetry-notebook stuff here. Think lovesick, embittered recollections of ex-girlfriends, like, “There’s a secret sickness called Lisa.” Think excessively literary invocations of obscure precursors, like “Guiraut de Bornelh.” The Savage Detectives is about angsty teenage intellectuals too, but a measure of ironic distance lets us laugh at them and connect with them. Juan García Madero’s exposed genitalia is hilarious, and we sympathize. He reminds us how shameful and awkward desire is for an adolescent virgin. But the same idea leaves us cold when we find it in a line of poetry like, “I am the penis observed.” The Unknown University is too varied a book to qualify as entirely puerile. Its most recent poems were written fifteen years after its earliest, and many of these newer ones remind us of all the reasons why Bolaño is such a fantastic writer, one of the best of our times. But when asked why he thought he was a better poet than a novelist, Bolaño supposedly said, “The poetry makes me blush less.” Some of the poems here may have the opposite effect on readers.

Yet the way this early collection prefigures Bolaño’s mature work is fascinating: twenty years before The Savage Detectives, he was already dramatizing his teenage literary rebellion in Mexico. His poetry is filled with ideas, characters, and even scenes that will reappear in that novel. Now we can say for certain that Bolaño’s mature work did not appear in a flash, but was the result of many years of gestation and labor, of the author mulling over his material and trying out different forms. The series of “Detectives” poems, “Lupe,” “Self-Portrait at Twenty Years,” “The Last Savage,” and “Roberto Bolaño’s Devotion” are obvious antecedents. Some lines, like, “Death is an automobile out driving the avenues of Mexico City,” seem to describe moments from the novel. Take this passage from, “The Donkey”:
On the outer limits

of the dream, and without quite knowing

Its meaning, its ultimate significance,

I still understand its music:

A cheerful farewell song.
The Savage Detectives is a cheerful farewell song, sung to Bolaño’s lost generation, and you would be hard pressed to come up with a better description of it.

“The Unknown University” refers to Bolaño’s years of toiling in literary obscurity, a story his fans will already know. He has always been a self-proclaimed outsider. It’s part of his appeal. There is an unknown universe waiting to be discovered outside of the doldrums of academia and the staid confines of the literary establishment, he tells us. But this is the same cloud of smoke which enfolds the Detectives, whose heroes drop out of college to write “real poetry.” And we must read their story, at least in part, as an ironic commentary: their romantic rebellion only earns them years of hard living and lost friends, during which time they publish nothing. Even their search for the lost poets of the Mexican avant-garde ends in tragedy, with a crime that forces them to flee Mexico for Europe and literary oblivion. But before the book ends, Garcia Madero does manage to read the long-lost notebooks of that poet who vanished into the desolate, desert towns of Sonora, and on the last page we find another of her cryptic poem/drawings. The ending is as powerful as it is enigmatic. The reader is left on his own to interpret the mystery. It is a testament to Bolaño’s fundamental artistic honesty that buried here, in his own long-lost notebook, we find Cesárea Tinajero’s poem/drawing, written twenty years earlier. He was the master of smoke and mirrors, but he couldn’t lie.