Say "Dublin," and James Joyce comes instantly to mind. Say "London," and any number of writers pop into imaginative view. Say "Lima, Peru," however...
Say “Dublin,” and James Joyce comes instantly to mind. Say “London,” and any number of writers pop into imaginative view.
Say “Lima, Peru,” however, and most American readers are likely to draw a blank.
That may be about to change.
In Peruvian-American writer Daniel Alarcón’s debut story collection “War by Candlelight” (HarperCollins, 189 pp., $23.95), the sights and sounds and tensions of the Peruvian capital come brilliantly alive. Not every tale here is a masterpiece, but several are. And in all of them — even those set in New York, where Lima serves more as an offstage character — Alarcón’s qualified love for the troubled city where he was born is palpable.
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Alarcón sees Lima, variously, through the eyes of street urchins swept up in petty gang battles; a journalist who’s made to feel his success is a betrayal of his old neighborhood; an artist-turned-terrorist whose family members fall along different points on the political spectrum.
He also gives some surprisingly sympathetic glimpses of Lima’s wealthier classes. While several of his characters are pushed to the point of violence by a passion to remedy their country’s social inequities, there’s nothing simplistic in the vision he offers of them or of a Peruvian society at war with itself (the Shining Path movement of the 1980s and ’90s, although unnamed, figures prominently in the book).
Daniel Alarcón will read from “War by Candlelight,” 7:30 p.m. tomorrow (with novelist Adam Mansbach) at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
The title story is the book’s most ambitious entry. Skipping back and forth through time, it examines how gifted art student Fernando, from a loving and supportive middle-class family, could come to believe that guerrilla terrorism is the best solution to his country’s systemic poverty and injustice.
Fernando himself grows ambivalent about his activities after he becomes a father. Still, he commits himself to the fight.
The glimpses one gets here of a bomb-threatened Lima and of rural Peru are striking.
The Andes become a “grand theater of wind and sky, mountain and water, and so much quiet.” The bus Fernando takes to get through them is a “contraption held together by ingenuity … Repairs were cruel surgeries of convenience.” Every image is sharp; each observation rings true.
Nevertheless “War by Candlelight” is easily topped by two Lima-set stories that blend fine writing and tough observation with a still more fluid narrative playfulness.
In “City of Clowns,” journalist Oscar Uribe recalls his boyhood while pursuing a story about Lima’s surprisingly abundant clown population. His father was a housing renovator with a habit of burglarizing the villas he fixed up a few months after working on them; his mother was a maid for a family whose devotion to her led them to pay for Oscar’s private schooling, where he was picked on by richer boys.
Needless to say, the grown-up Oscar — who occasionally helped his father out — suffers some conflicts of conscience. And in Lima’s clown population, he unexpectedly finds kindred souls: “They suited my mood. Appropriating the absurd, embracing shame, they transformed it. Laugh at me. Humiliate me. And when you do, I’ve won.”
“A Science for Being Alone” initially seems a less political tale than “Clowns,” as it describes the desperate efforts of a laid-off bank employee to marry the mother of his 5-year-old daughter. We know from the start that he’ll lose them both. But the complications of how he got into this jam are as funny as they are sad.
Tempted by a life in the U.S., the mother ultimately spurns the father of her child for reasons that have more to do with Lima than the man himself. “In this city,” he laments, “there is nothing more useless than imagining a life. … There is no work. There is nothing I could have promised her in that moment that wouldn’t have been built on imagination. Or worse, on luck.”
A discouraging verdict. Still, Alarcón handles the couple’s final moment of reckoning in a manner more wily than downbeat. And the tale’s last turn of phrase provides it with a perfect closing flourish.
Other strong entries: “Third Avenue Suicide,” about a Peruvian in New York whose Indian girlfriend keeps him a secret from her traditionalist mother, and “Absence,” which draws an affecting parallel between a Peruvian weighing possible U.S. exile and a New Yorker mourning the loss to her city inflicted by terrorist attack.
In a handful of places, Alarcón spoils his effect by reaching for last-minute uplift, especially in the book’s closing story, “A Strong Dead Man.”
But there’s no denying this is a notable debut by a young author whose sharp observational eye has some gritty knowledge of human hope and foible behind it.