Sunday, October 9, 2011

“Life among the Pirates,” Lionel Messi and Daniel Alarcón

Popular Chilean writer and critic Alberto Fuguet writes of Daniel Alarcón and his debut collection of short-stories War by Candlelight (Harper Perennial, 2005): “It was bound to happen: the great new Latin American voice writes in English. Daniel Alarcón’s surprising and adrenaline-filled short stories not only put him immediately on the map, they turn the map outside down.”

From the back cover of War by Candlelight: “Daniel Alarcon is an extraordinary new voice in literary fiction, one you will not soon forget.”

These statements are telling prophesies. Since his debut publication of War by Candlelight back in 2005 Peruvian-born Daniel Alarcón has gone on to publish the novel Lost City Radio (Harper Perennial, 2007) a second collection of short stories El rey siempre está por encima del pueblo (Alfaguara, 2011) and the graphic novel—one of the first in the genre to be published in Peru—Ciudad de payasos (Alfaguara, 2011). Alarcón is also editor of the award-winning Peruvian magazine Etiqueta Negra and is currently at work on a second novel At Night We Walk in Circles and the Spanish-language program Radio Ambulante, which is schedule to air in early spring of next year. He is the winner of numerous awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Whiting Award. In the last six years Alarcón has not only managed to establish a foothold in both the North American and Latin American literary landscapes but has indeed altered its geography.

On Monday October the 3rd and Tuesday October 4th I had the honor and pleasure of sitting down with Daniel Alarcón for an interview conducted for Letras Latinas’ Oral History Project, as well as a pizza-lunch with peers and faculty of Notre Dame’s MFA program. All in anticipation of Alarcón’s reading “At Night We Walk in Circles,” an event co-sponsored by Letras Latinas, the Worldview Initiative/Office of the President, the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, the Kellog Institute for International Studies, the Graduate School, Romance Languages and Literature, and the Creative Writing Program. It is my sincere hope that the following post will serve the readers of Letras Latinas Blog as a looking glass, and give a stimulating synopsis of Daniel Alarcón and his visit to the Notre Dame campus.


Daniel Alarcón is perhaps the only writer I can think of who can speak in the same breath of Lionel Messi (Barcelona’s football crack), book piracy in Peru, and the profound sense of loss and rage felt by victims broken by war and the collective amnesia embraced by those societies who have been butchered into silence. War and violence, with its dismemberment of historical memory, thus becomes for Daniel Alarcón an “indecipherable text,” a grotesque wheel of fortune—with no beginning or end. Daniel writes in the Lost City Radio of the violence plaguing a fictitious Latin American country:

“The war had become, if it wasn't from the very beginning, an indecipherable text. The country had slipped, fallen into a nightmare, now horrifying, now comic, and in the city, there was only a sense of dismay at the inexplicability of it. Had it begun with a voided election? Or the murder of a popular senator? Who could remember now? . . . Even [nine years ago] anyone paying attention should have known what was coming. But they had stepped together into this chaos, the insurgency and the government, arm in arm, and for nine violent years, they'd danced."


“I still believe there are things only fiction can accomplish” says Daniel.

And I would say yes and add that there are certain things, harsh realities—collective acts of violence so physically and spiritually grotesque that the human soul would rather fly away or forget—and which only through fiction can we begin to understand, to endure.  No small task indeed.

This, I think, is literature at its finest; a literature that serves –whether intended or not—a social purpose; literature that is unafraid, and dares to endure, to exceed shelf-life.

I am of the same sentiment as poet Sheryl Luna in that to be a writer that is only read by other writers is to ultimately be a failed writer. Literature by its very own nature transmits knowledge and acts upon the language and actions of those who read it and in the process teaches us a little about the things we can accomplish. To write a literature that literally and figuratively moves us and that transcends its very own limitations is a rare achievement and one which makes Daniel’s fiction fundamental.


It is telling that Fuguet would describe the impact of Daniel’s stories as turning the world upside down. In a sense I agree. Daniel constantly reminds us of the porous condition—despite what economists or politicians would have us believe—of imposed borders: Daniel, born in Peru to a middle class family, writes about the most marginalized peoples of Latin America and he does it in English and from the belly of North America.

“The U.S. is a Latin American country” says Daniel, turning the world upside down.

But I often think of Daniel and his work not as turning the world upside down—with its implicit hierarchies—but rather flattening it into a bridge, allowing for two-way traffic, for translation of our common realities.

Daniel is thus a bricklayer, a builder of bridges and language is his building materials. Let me explain:

The poet Juan Gelman writes of translation: “to translate is in inhuman—no language or face allows itself to be translated. We must leave this beauty intact and add yet another beauty to accompany it. Their lost unity lies ahead.” I like to believe that Daniel Alarcón would be no stranger to this sentiment. As a writer Daniel serves as a bridge allowing for intersection—for translation—for mutual recognition among all the Americas despite those whom seek to amputate us with murals or walls: Daniel intersects the beauty of one language, one reality (North America) with the beauty of another (Latin America) and in doing so builds a bridge where upon walking two different regions will recognize themselves in each other.

“Certainly the world of Peruvian letters does not need me” says Daniel.

But in the face of looming social and environmental crises language will ultimately become an ever more fragile and indispensible bridge between our peoples. And those who interpret and translate these realities will only become more and more indispensable not only for North or South American but for us all.




--Lauro Vazquez

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