This latest novel by Daniel Alarcón brings another dimension to the portrayal of contemporary Peru seen in his brilliant short story collection ‘War by Candlelight’ : the villages of the Andes where ‘the thin air is magical’ and ‘everything is a riddle’. More specifically we are shown the contrast between the capital on the coast and the villages at altitude when three characters, Henry, Nelson and Patalarga decide to reform the theatre group ‘Diciembre’ in order to perform the play ‘The Idiot President’ to village audiences in the Andes. This tour is a follow up to a tour undertaken by Henry with the theatre group several years earlier which ended up with him convicted for terrorist offences and thrown into the nightmarish prison Collectors in Lima. The toll taken by this prison experience hangs over Henry and the narrative, details seeping out slowly like an ink blot, its presence reflected in the title, which refers to the prisoners’ exercise in the yard.
The novel is not just an account of the constantly shifting performances of the play and the exploration of acting a role: it is also a love story and a thriller. The younger Nelson goes off on tour leaving his ex-girlfriend, Ixta, behind. He has finished the relationship, partly in the expectation that his brother, Francis, will send him a visa from the States, which never happens. However, from early on in the tour, he realises that finishing with Ixta was a mistake and, desperate to rekindle the relationship, phones her to tell her he loves her and wants to be with her. In the meantime, she has got together with Mindo, by whom she is now pregnant. At the same time, while in the village of T-, he falls foul of the sinister Jaime and as a result has to stay on there, impersonating Jaime’s younger brother, Rogelio, to their dementing mother, Mrs . Anabel. After several days, he leaves and returns to Lima without Jaime’s permission, where finally both Mindo and Jaime catch up with him.
Alarcon’s versatility as a writer enables him to evoke atmosphere and feelings in a way which lifts the heart while sparing us nothing in his characterisation. I loved the description of the austere, freezing mountain villages, ‘that seemed to bleed together in kaleidoscopic intensity’ ; the audiences of dour, serious, stoical villagers quietly taking in the performance by the sophisticated city dwellers; the miners, their lights bobbing in front of them, rushing down the hill to the bar El Astral; the ‘shrinking Mrs. Anabel’ who ‘exuded only darkness. It was like standing at the mouth of a deep cave and being chilled by its cool breath’.
And his characters are complex, both city dwellers and villagers suffering, though perhaps in different ways. Employment in the city is precarious: Henry works as a biology teacher and taxi driver to make ends meet, Nelson and Ixta have difficulty finding work after training as actors at the Conservatory, while Nelson’s brother, Francis, has left for the States to make a living. But in the villages of the Andes the choices are starker still : while children go hungry, money is to be made through drug trafficking. And Alarcón’s characters are indelibly marked emotionally too: Henry forever by his prison experiences, middle aged female characters such as Nelson’s mother, Monica, and Mrs. Abel, by family separation and bereavement.
The story is told by an invisible narrator, whose presence is at first felt by comments such as ‘by all accounts’ and ‘Ixta said to me later’. We become curious about the identity of the narrator, who becomes gradually more intrusive as they refer to interviewing the characters on several occasions, in an attempt to arrive at a truthful account of events. Our expectations are raised that there will be some clever twist in the identity of this narrator, and there is something of an anticlimax when we learn that the narrator is simply a character who is visiting his parents in the village of T- at the same time as the theatre group and is given Nelson’s journals with their account of the tour. Yet later, when the narrator is working on a magazine and entertaining his co-workers with the ‘folkloric details of provincial life’, he is aware that their amazement is somewhat faked: in fact they all had ambivalent relationships with their families and ‘cultural inheritance’. And it is this idea which I take from the book- the range of identities and ways of life in Peru shown in the novel, leading sometimes to a complex, changing and multi layered sense of identity, reflected in the constantly shifting interpretation of roles in ‘The Idiot President’.
This novel is a great read, but above all, I loved the descriptions of the high Andes, finding myself almost light headed and giddily intoxicated here on my modest Derbyshire hill by the power of the prose.