In these short stories Daniel Alarcon combines a concise and deft narrative skill with a dense distillation of experience which leaves a sense of unease lingering in the mind long after reading. The stories take place in Peru and the US in the recent past and feature young male protagonists, often young adults but in two cases teenagers as well. In some cases the stories show the protagonist narrators responding to loss, such as the death of a father, but also to unexpected events, both natural catastrophes and to developments in a relationship. Some events and characters appear in several stories: the landslide which engulfs a town, the uncle who goes blind over his leather work, as if to emphasise the inescapable impact of natural disasters, the presence of family and the physical sufferings of the poor.
We are presented with a picture of Peru as a society with a well defined class structure: most of Alarcon’s characters are from humble social origins and yet some aspire through education to become engineers and doctors. There is an awareness that attending a good school in Lima can improve life chances and yet in ‘City of Clowns’ this plan backfires as the narrator is taunted by schoolmates for the lowly barrio he comes from and his aspirations change direction. So while the social status of Señor Ingeniero Hubert Azcárate seems assured, for the newly arrived from the lower classes, their hold on good schools and university is tenuous, as if they could lose their grip at any moment, drop through the social strata and onto the street, into gang life or clandestine political activism.
Many of the characters have family in the provinces- in cities such as Arequipa or the grim mining community of Pasco on the cold Andean plateau -and there is a sense of the movement of the rural poor into the capital to find work. The movement goes beyond Lima however, to the US and New York, and the complexity of the immigrant experience and its hierarchy is shown in ‘Third Avenue Suicide’ where the Hispanic lover of a young Indian woman has to leave their flat every time her mother comes round, because she wants her daughter to marry an Indian. We are surprised when in ‘Absence’ the mild mannered Peruvian Wari starts lording it over an Ecuadorian market seller, flaunting his alleged superiority by pretending he is going out with a ‘gringa’.
The precariousness of the hold on a place in the city, on the chance to educate and better oneself is echoed in the natural catastrophes described in the stories which can destroy neighbourhoods, livelihoods and whole cities. So in ‘Flood’ the lagoon spills over and floods a neighbourhood, leading to anarchy and street warfare. We are told in several stories of the 1970 landslide which engulfed a whole city and movingly in ‘The Visitor’ where three small children lose their mother. And the poor seem abandoned in the face of such disasters: the only public authorities referred to are the police occasionally and the prison guards in ‘Flood’ while the only intervention by politicians is their brutal response to the prison riot in ‘Flood’. This is a world of precarious social structures, where people are abandoned and left to fend and struggle by themselves for work, a place in society and against the unpredictable forces of nature.
Now I was quite surprised to find myself so gripped by these stories, given the male protagonist and my occasional impatience with the male perspective ( The Sportswriter and F come immediately to mind). I think this has something to do with the fact that while some of the male protagonists display the ruthless attitude of the gang members others show an enormous capacity for human tenderness: in ‘Third Avenue Suicide’ the physical tenderness expressed by David towards Reena when she becomes ill is as moving in its intimacy as the references to their sexual passion at the start of their relationship and the fierce love felt by men for their children is central in ‘The Visitor’ and ‘A Science for Being Alone’.
But beyond that and back to the way the stories and their layers are still inhabiting my brain has to do I think with their power to evoke a different world from mine- my comfortable Western European UK perspective. The power of the writing allowed me to glimpse a little of what it is to live in a more precarious, less stable and predictable world and this, given the tumultuous influx of refugees into Europe as I write, is surely a good thing. And specifically on Peru, I’m now going to make sure I read a bit around its troubled history to flesh out the events referred to in these stories- as well as look out of course for Daniel Alarcon’s other books.