Daniel Alarcón’s novel is reminiscent of the movies Capote and Citizen Kane. In each case, the narrator is part of the story. In a tantalizing extra twist, Alarcón conceals the narrator’s identity until late in the novel, as he pieces together witness accounts of this mournful saga of three actors trying to revive a political drama.
During a period of insurrection in an unnamed South American country, Henry Nuñez wrote and performed in a play titled The Idiot President. Offended, the nation’s real president sentenced him to confinement in Collectors, a harsh and dangerous prison. Liberated following the end of a civil war, Henry embarks on a touring production of the play with his old friend Patalarga and a young neophyte named Nelson. Armed only with Henry’s ghosts, Nelson’s zeal, and Patalarga’s loyalty, they perform in outdoor plazas, churches, garages, even people’s homes.
Complicating their mission are Henry’s memories of Rogelio, a beloved fellow inmate who died in the prison, and Nelson’s obsession with his ex-lover Ixta. Alarcón tells us just enough about the play to make clear that its characters, too, are playing roles in an attempt to survive a political prison from which they cannot escape. While Henry mourns for Rogelio, Nelson becomes trapped in a new role that endangers his life.
Alarcón cleverly leads us through an odyssey so carefully structured that the reader seems to be witnessing a major historical account, rather than a sorrowful tale of actors torturing themselves in a hopeless effort to recapture what is lost. Their theatrical tour is like Henry’s nights in Collectors, where “friends paired off and walked circles around the prison yard, commiserating, confessing, doing all they could to imagine they were somewhere else.” The narrator heightens the dramatic tension by producing witnesses to reconstruct events at critical moments.
Regrettably, I can award only three stars to this excellent work because of its profusion of offensive language, profanity, and sexual references. Nevertheless, I must congratulate the author for crafting a deeply engrossing masterpiece of love and loss.