Set in an unnamed South American country, At Night We Walk in Circles tells the story of Diciembre, a guerrilla theatre group consisting of three men: Nelson, a young man fresh from acting school; Patalarga, an older man in his forties; and Henry, the once-legendary playwright and actor whose play, The Idiot President, years ago led to his conviction as a terrorist, and his term in a desperately grim prison. We follow the characters as they leave their home town, immerse themselves in the play, and travel round the country.
The novel is most impressive as an experiment in narrative technique. It soon becomes apparent that the narrator is outside the main action, someone who has pieced together the story from various sources, for reasons that are not immediately apparent.
His positioning within (and outside) the narrative affords him certain freedoms of style, which we might not allow a disembodied and omniscient narrator. Notably, he openly makes judgements about the characters from whom he draws his information; and the implicit subjectivity of these judgements invites further speculation from the reader, speculation which is ultimately as entertaining as the printed story itself:
His eyes sparkled when he had something important to say.
Moreover, because Alarcón distances himself from the narrative voice, he gives himself a kind of permission to write romantically, to an extent that some of his more jaded (British) readers might otherwise find difficult to stomach. It seems likely that Alarcón is voicing his own feelings, but this complication of his expression can make us more forgiving of his occasional slight excesses and flights of fancy:
Pregnancy is always mythic; it can be medicalized and quantified, carved into trimesters or weeks, but nothing can subvert its essential mystery.
I had the sense we were acting out the very scene he was describing: metaphorically, there we were, he and I, standing by the side of the road high in the mountains, observing the wreckage. Only in this case the wreckage was him.
And it can make us react more unself-consciously to his more expansive prose, the kind that tends to set alarm bells ringing in twenty-first century readers’ ears:
…sheer mountainfaces, the sky almost unnervingly blue. There were wildflowers growing at the roadside, pushing out from the dry rock in exquisite and surprising shades.
Apart from anything else, it’s not so common anymore to read indulgent descriptions of landscape. Alarcón revels in these descriptive moments – moments that pepper the novel right up until the end – and, thanks to his technique, the reader can revel in them, too.
However what made this novel a little disappointing was that its experimental nature seems to have clouded Alarcón’s vision as to exactly what kind of novel he was writing. Alarcón explores (at some length) the characters of the three actors in the earlier parts of the novel: their strengths and weaknesses, their motivations, their ties to the world outside their play and their feelings about the drama within the troupe. And although we are constantly given the sense that this is in preparation for something (the narrator is always reminding us that Bad Things are about to happen – sometimes he does this heavy-handedly), once or twice the various Bad Things, when revealed, don’t seem to be such big disasters at all.
And when the novel’s main tragedy finally occurs (quite late in the novel), Alarcón leaves so little space for exploring its effect on the characters that it becomes hard to understand why he went to such trouble to give a detailed account of the various characters before the tragedy. Huge implications for personality, family, wider relationships and so forth are related with a brutal brusqueness which, although fitting to the finality of the event itself, doesn’t really do justice to the build-up we have already been given.
Arguably, the narrator’s asides throughout the novel – in which he gives tantalising details about his interviews with the various characters and their reactions to the tragedy, both in the short and the long-term – constitute this exploration. But, even in a narrative which plays with chronology, timing is everything: when tragedy struck, it felt like it needed more time and space to really absorb and revel in the true weight of it, even though it’s been made clear for hundreds of pages that the tragedy was a fait accomplit. Despite Alarcón’s flashbacks and flashforwards, At Night We Walk in Circles is still, in large part, a novel of suspense. This means that what happens when that suspense is finally lifted is just as important as what happens before. Had Alarcón fully grasped the kind of novel he was writing, this might have been a genre-busting, even exceptional novel; as it is, it’s a very good one.