A South American theater troupe revisits an anti-establishment play and generates some new drama in the latest political allegory by Alarcón (Lost City Radio, 2007).
As in Lost City Radio, this novel is concerned with the aftereffects of revolution and the surprising ways revolutionary rhetoric endures. Set in an unnamed Andean country, the story centers on Nelson, an aspiring actor who lands a role with Diciembre, a theater company that’s dusting off its best-known work, “The Idiot President,” for a revival. As the play’s title suggests, Diciembre’s work wasn’t subtle, but it was a touchstone 25 years previously, and its author, Henry, did time in a notoriously harsh prison for it. Henry and his colleague Patalarga take on Nelson for the tour, and though the three have an easy rapport, we know early something has gone wrong: The narrator is a reporter who’s quoting everybody involved except Nelson. Alarcón’s decision to frame the story as a superlong magazine story has its downsides: The novel has a tonal flatness that makes the story feel lighter than intended. But the outsider-looking-in perspective gives the narration both a sense of omniscience and intimacy, since the reporter knew the players. As the tour goes off the rails, Alarcón explores the idea of how imitation creates reality: The play's restaging revives old revolutionary feelings; Nelson obsesses over his role with the woman he left behind; and he falls into the orbit of a family who's bullied him to pretend to be a long-lost relative. In time, Nelson unwittingly becomes the target of a number of men, an absurd scenario that's shot through with tragedy. Mind who you pretend to be, Alarcón suggests; the story you tell can be a surprisingly potent one. That's true with this book, too.
Though the book is low on lyricism, Alarcón successfully merges themes of art, love and politics.