Peruvian-American author Daniel Alarcón has written a very interesting work here. It combines the best of the canon of Latin American fiction - with it’s toying with and blurring the lines between reality and fable - and a first rate mystery. What intrigues me most about the novel more than anything else is its narrative approach.
Nelson is a young aspiring actor/writer who is enamored with a absurdist playwright named Henry Nuñez who back in the 1980s had formed a radical theater troupe called “Diciembre”. This was during a civil war in an unnamed South American country (though it is presumably Peru) when the authorities were sure to squash any dissent and anything deemed “terrorist”. Henry’s play - “The Idiot President”, in the absurdist tradition of Ionesco - consisted of only three actors for three roles: The President, his son, and the President’s manservant, who is killed by the son at the end of the play. This way, as Henry put it as the play toured the more rural parts of the country, “that everyone can get a chance to serve the president”. After the play caught the attention of the authorities, Henry is jailed in one of Peru’s most notorious prisons called “The Collectors” (which is fictional but based on an actual prison) and labeled a “terrorist”.
Enter Nelson, present day. A student at The Conservatory. His life is going nowhere. Caring for his widowed mother, the love of his life off with another man, and his brother off living in the United States, he feels essentially trapped by circumstances. His plan to join his brother in the Unites States was stymied once his father passed away and he was forced to remain behind to care for his mother, who he didn’t want to leave alone. He is also pining away for an ex-girlfriend who may or may not have the same feelings (and that relationship only gets even more complicated as the story slowly beings to reveal itself). Wanting to get his career off the ground, Nelson lands the staring role in Henry’s controversial play. Henry, now a shadow of his former self, has is own reasons for wanting to go back on the road and revive his old play.
Together with Nelson and his long time friend Patalarga, they again take the show on the road to town after town of baffled peasants. Once the tour begins, life on the road is not what Nelson thinks it will be and he finds himself becoming increasingly entangled in the group’s personal lives and eventually finding himself in a situation which mirrors the absurdist nature of the play itself. Henry is haunted by his former cellmate and lover Rogelio and as the group goes from town to town without any real set plan, we learn that Henry has been guiding the troupe towards Rogelio’s hometown all along. It is while in this town - referred to only as “T----” - that Nelson becomes embroiled in the life of Rogelio’s family after Henry mistakenly reveals to Rogelio’s senile mother that her son had been killed in a prison riot years earlier.
The narrative relies on a lot of foreshadowing and the reader knows from the beginning that “something terrible happens” and this is where the mystery element comes in, a slow burn to it’s eventual - and ambiguous - outcome.
The reader also learns early on that the four main characters are more or less false protagonists. The narrator is the true protagonist here as the reader learns over the course of the novel who that narrator is and how - and why - he is telling this story. It’s approach reminded me a lot of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and there are some similarities between the two stories (those who have read and enjoyed Diaz’s novel will absolutely love this). Lives bump into one another at seemingly random moments and simple decisions become more consequential than ever imagined and the complicated and interrelated nature of it all makes for very complex and intriguing storytelling.