Thursday, July 12, 2018

The King is Always Above the People: Stories by Daniel Alarcón

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub Oct 31st 2017 by Riverhead Books, ISBN13: 9781594631726, Literary Awards: National Book Award Nominee for Fiction (2017)

One assumes from the title that the king spoken of is revered and placed in a position of honor. Very shortly we learn that the king is actually hanging by his neck, above the central square, the people looking up at him swinging there. Many things are different from the perspective of those on the flip side of north.

Alarcón is Peruvian-American, and his voice is strong (having seen poverty), male (having known brutality), and distinctive (not being North American). His biography is fascinating. He is an investigative journalist; he teaches both broadcast journalism and writes novels. He collaborated with partners to establish a Spanish-language podcast, Radio Ambulante, telling Latin American stories for NPR.

This collection of stories may be a perfect way to be introduced to his work. Some stories have a knife hidden somewhere in the folds. We are reading along, interested and engaged, and suddenly we remember the world is not kind. We might have moments of carefree pleasure but it is not too long before the reality comes flooding back. Until then, however, there is a sense of release most intense.

“The Provincials” is the longest story and it is something altogether new. A father and his son return to the town the father had fled some years before. He is now working at a job unimaginable to those people in the town—Head Librarian of the Rare and Antiquarian Manuscripts division of the National Library—and has one son in America. The son traveling with him is an actor. Because the townspeople mistake him for his cross-border brother, he accedes to this role. He discovers there is, in fact, something of value here in this tired town they’ve left.

“República and Grau” may be my favorite story, a story of a wily blind man begging for coins. He is accompanied by a ten-year-old who is being pimped by his father to bring home half the take. Life is hard. The begging blind man seems happy to share his income, such as it is, with the neatly-dressed boy. One day, after his father beats the boy for such a small take-home, the boy’s bruised, bloody face and uncaring demeanor earns the two beggars more.

The second-longest story in the bunch, “The Bridge,” is as filling as a novel. There is so much to think about, so much alluded to, so much desire and despair in it that one has to pause, and pull in the oars. Let’s just think about what he is saying, if you don’t mind. It won’t hurt you to know the story ends with a recording of an audience roaring back at an opera performer who left them momentarily speechless.

In the best of all possible worlds, I would read this collection slowly, allowing time between stories as though each were a square of bitter chocolate. But I am a traveler, too, and fear I will lose the opportunity to share in this strongly South American-flavored story-telling so must finish it quickly. All the way through we sense the movement of individuals, tied in some mysterious psychic way to the mother country but mostly adrift, seeking rest. The North, when it is perceived at all, is “other.”

The final story, “The Auroras,” couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment, considering the state of discussion around the world on the subject of sexual relations and exploitation. The story pained me. While we experience a curious role-reversal in the sexual arena, we also have a queer example of the effect of social groups on attitudes…something like the Facebook effect. The main character was influenced to find his inner malice and express it, only later understanding how thoroughly he’d been manipulated. It was a distressing story to end on.

Alarcón is interesting enough that I set out immediately to see if this set of stories is representative of his work. He has two earlier novels, his debut called Lost City Radio (2007) about a radio show that recounts for families the status of victims of a war in a nameless South American country, and At Night We Walk in Circles (2013) featuring people with names and backgrounds the same as those in his story mentioned above called “The Provincials.”

But there is more. Alarcón collaborated on a graphic novel and several story collections. He is a journalist, and just kind of endlessly fascinating. He appears to write in English: no translator is listed. He teaches or has taught at several universities in the United States. You must sample his work if only because South American writers are too scarce—for whatever reason—in North America, and I presume, in Europe and elsewhere. South America is simply too often overlooked in our hurry to discover larger targets or exotica.

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