Daniel Alarcón’s new short story collection explores themes of displacement with a surreal eye

The Peruvian writer’s The King is Always Above the People dazzles with allegorical power and satire.

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Daniel Alarcón was born in Lima. Peru, in 1977, and raised in the United States from the age of three. Part of a new generation of internationally acclaimed writers of Latin American origin (which includes Valeria Luiselli, Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin and Andrés Neuman among others), Alarcón, unlike his contemporaries, writes in English, in a laconic American style that nevertheless reads as if in translation from the Spanish of his native country. There is a dreamlike aspect to his work, echoing Peru’s most famous author, Mario Vargas Llosa, coupled with a literary archness worthy of Argentina’s Julio Cortázar.

Alarcón’s output is already prodigious: journalism, novels (At Night We Walk in Circles (2013), is perhaps his best known) and short stories, of which this new volume, The King is Always Above the People, is comprised. In it he gives full rein to his preoccupations: statelessness – both geographical and psychological – the teetering balance of political power and the insubstantial nature of the democratic process.

Displacement is a major theme of these stories, which primarily feature young men who seek to transform their lives through leaving their small towns for the “capital” or “Old City” (or vice versa) of an unnamed country with a fragile hold on the rule of law. Some have even moved to a different country altogether – usually the United States. In each case expectations lag considerably behind reality; and reality has a less than disarming way of catching up with Alarcón’s characters, such as the 19-year-old protagonist of the book’s title story: “It was the year I left my parents, a few useless friends, and a girl who liked to tell everyone we were married, and moved 200 kilometres downstream to the capital.”

The young man is an automatic liar, passing himself off as an orphaned economics student to the kindly elderly couple who take him in as their lodger. Having failed to find his preferred job at the city’s docks, he obtains work as a cashier in a newsagent’s within sight and sound of the harbour, a porthole to his dreams of escape. Futile dreams, as it turns out. The shop sells postcards, among them a grim reproduction featuring the public hanging a few years earlier of the country’s dictator. (Alarcón’s inspiration for this was a cartoon by Iranian artist Ardeshir Mohassess, published in 1978, the year preceding Iran’s revolution). The young man reflects on his father’s tears at the dictator’s grisly end, at the “inviolable silence” of the crowds that watched the hanging and the authority the corpse retained over them, even in death – a version of the patriarchal entrapment that he himself twists and turns to outwit.

Subterfuge and the paternal role also hold sway in two very different pieces in the book: in “República and Grau”, a boy is coerced by his abusive father to assist a blind man to beg at the corner of their city’s major crossroads. The father suspects the beggar is cheating him of his agreed share of the daily takings; the boy, pulled between complicity and rebellion, will eventually make his own bid for moral freedom at a barely imaginable cost.

By contrast the affluent, educated father and son of “The Provincials” have no less problematic a relationship, which reaches an uncomfortable apotheosis during a road trip back home to settle an uncle’s estate. The father’s palpable disappointment in the low-level achievements of his son, Nelson, is matched by the locals’ reaction to the father’s own abandonment of his roots – the education and money that could have been used to improve the lot of those left behind. As for Nelson, the locals’ assumption that he is in fact his more successful brother becomes part of a game he and his father maintain to shore up the yawning gap in their understanding of each other.

Alarcón saves his most overtly surreal writing for his final story, the outstanding “The Auroras”, a novella-length piece. Herman, a lecturer, takes a sabbatical from both his university and from his wife and stepson, arriving in a port city precisely “2,700 kilometres from home”. Almost immediately he is taken in by Clarissa, a sinuous beauty he first glimpses standing “against a wall as green as the sea”, whose sailor husband is away on a long voyage. The ensuing events with Clarissa and, one by one, her friends, occur in a fug of erotic disassociation, as Herman falls truly “out of his element, as he hoped he’d be”, although his final status recalls the delirium-soaked fate of Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. It’s a magnetic piece in a collection that dazzles with allegorical power and satire. 

The King is Always Above the People
Daniel Alarcón
4th Estate, 256pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge