At Night We Walk in Circles, by Daniel Alarcón, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99/Riverhead, RRP$27.95, 384 pages

In 1986, Henry Nuñez is arrested for incitement after a production of his play The Idiot President and carted off to the notorious Collectors prison. There he defiantly puts on a performance with the help of other inmates. Shortly afterwards, seven-year-old Nelson hears a radio interview with Nuñez, a leading light in the radical theatre troupe Diciembre, discussing the jailhouse show. It proves a life-changing moment, introducing the boy to the possibilities of theatre.

Fifteen years later, Nelson, now a budding young actor, attends auditions for a new touring version of The Idiot President organised by another Diciembre stalwart, a man named Patalarga. The play’s creator, Nuñez, will also star. Nelson gets the part and, after a month of rehearsals, the three actors set out from the city to perform for small crowds in towns and villages across the country.

Daniel Alarcón is a serious talent. The Peruvian-born, US-based writer was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 best writers under 40 in 2010, his story collection War by Candlelight was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award and his first novel Lost City Radio won the International Literature Prize. His new novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, is a complex exploration of memory, storytelling, fate and identity.

The novel’s fictional universe borrows from articles that Alarcón wrote for Harper’s magazine on his visits to Lurigancho, Peru’s largest prison, as well as Walter Ventosilla’s play El Mandatario Idiota and the theatre group Setiembre. It examines the ways in which lives can take shape or come apart thanks to seemingly inconsequential moments.

Nelson is the tale’s innocent: he is “almost twenty-three, had a backpack full of scripts, a notebook jammed with handwritten stories, a head of unruly curls”. Nuñez, on the other hand, has had any innocence that might once have existed drummed from him by his year-long stretch in Collectors, and the death of his prison lover Rogelio. As the tour continues, climbing into the Andes and finally arriving at Rogelio’s (unnamed) home town of “T–––”, both Nuñez and Nelson find their lives and destinies slipping from their control.

Although the characters are vividly drawn, what compromises the story is its narrative structure. This is far from a straight tale, simply told; Alarcón chooses to use an external narrator, a magazine journalist originally from T–––, to recount the story several years after the action. As the novel progresses, the conceit of a writer uncovering past events comes almost to swamp the forward thrust of the plot.

For this set-up to work, the narrator would need to introduce himself early and then recede from view, allowing the reader to become subsumed in the action; or he would need to become such a present and engaging character in his own right that we don’t mind spending time with him. Sadly, Alarcón’s unnamed narrator does neither. Instead, he tells the tale with an earnest dedication to the details, timings and intricacies of his subjects’ movements and habits. One senses that a different approach could have unearthed the more suspenseful, gripping and moving story buried here.

That is not to say that there isn’t some terrific writing. Alarcón summons both the city and the provinces of his native land with tremendous vigour and reveals the loneliness that lies at the heart of his characters. “Inside the hostel, the owner gave Nelson a large rubber bladder, swollen with boiling water, and as he prepared for bed, alone now, he held it in his hands. It was like holding a human heart, his own perhaps. He felt what remained of his contentment evaporating.”

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