Alarcón generates suspense while achieving a tone of tragic ironyby Evelyn Toynton / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Daniel Alarcón, whose name appears on both Granta’s and the New Yorker’s lists of America’s best young writers, told an interviewer in 2010 that he had given up writing about South America (born in Peru, Alarcón has lived in the US since he was three). Fortunately, he changed his mind: like his previous books, his richly populated new novel is set in an unnamed Latin American country still scarred by the ravages of a bloody civil war.
When Nelson, a novice actor, lands a role in a touring revival of an absurdist satire called The Idiot President, he finds himself playing opposite his intellectual hero: the work’s author, imprisoned for his subversive play 15 years earlier and haunted by thoughts of his lover, who died in a fire that destroyed the prison. The three-man company plays to tiny audiences in impoverished mountain villages deserted by their young. In the last of these, rendered poignantly vivid by Alarcón, Nelson is forced into acting out a much trickier, more dangerous sort of role, for an audience of one bereaved old woman. The consequences prove irrevocable, and life shattering.
Though he relies a little heavily on foreshadowing, at his best Alarcón generates real suspense while achieving a tone of tragic irony that never lapses into sentimentality. There is no easy redemption on offer here, no happy endings, but Alarcón’s depiction of the twin traps of illusion and despair, his portraits of people defeated by life or refusing to accept defeat, ring powerfully true.