Until about the halfway point in At Night We Walk in Circles, I had a recurring sense of deja vu, but I couldn’t place it. I’ve read a lot about Central and South America and the prisons there, and the closest I could think of was Kiss of the Spider Woman or All the Pretty Horses. Eventually I got to a chunk of Alarcón‘s novel and said to myself, Wait. I’ve read this before. That’s when I realized I had read it before, or at least parts of it, recently even, in the New Yorker. Two seconds of research told me that parts of At Night We Walk in Circles has appeared twice there: “The Idiot President” (2008) and “Collectors” (2013 and behind their paywall). I read the latter just a few months ago and had forgotten about it when I picked up the novel. I was relieved, as I was beginning to think I’d gone crazy.
The main plot is about a young man, Nelson, who joins a touring theater group called Diciembre. They go off into the countryside performing The Idiot President, a play about a dictator who hires a new servant every day and kills him by the end. They end up in a village identified by Alarcón as T—, and Nelson ends up involved with the family of…well, here’s where the other major plotline comes in. Two other characters, Henry and Patalarga, were original members of the troupe. Henry had been arrested for terrorism because he wrote and directed this politically charged play, and he spent several months in a Peruvian prison called Collectors, where he met and fell in love with Rogelio, who died in a riot shortly after Henry was freed. It’s several years later and the political climate has changed, and he wants to tour again. He and Patalarga hire Nelson to play the president’s son. Along the way, Henry realizes that T— is Rogelio’s hometown, and he wants to meet his family. He does, and mischief ensues, involving Nelson, who ends up playing an entirely different role.
That’s a super-simple rundown of the plot. It gets complicated.
I really liked At Night We Walk in Circles. When I picked it up, I had no idea what I was getting into, and that was a good thing. I enjoy reading books blind. That’s certainly the only reason I picked up The Goldfinch in the first place: I heard that it was good, and I read it. Unlike The Goldfinch, though, Alarcón’s novel is my kind of book, though I might not have read it if I’d bothered to read a plot summary. That said, choosing a book out of the blue is always a crapshoot. This one was worth it.
After this novel, I tried to get into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but 50 pages in, I gave up. There were so many similarities to The Lord of the Rings that I was distracted, and, try as I might, I just couldn’t get interested. That series has been on my tl;dr and way-too-hardcore-nerd lists for years. I’ve broken the tl;dr barrier, for the most part, and I generally like fantasy, so I don’t know what my problem is. So many people like Wheel of Time that I somehow think I should, too. Maybe now just isn’t the time.
I also tried Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, who I generally like. Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are both fantastic. Black Swan Green, though, is a non-magical realist bildungsroman, and I just couldn’t catch on. Maybe another instance of right book, wrong time.