Daniel Alarcón: “Collectors” from TNY, 7/29/13

TNY Art by Larry Towell

TNY Art by Larry Towell

Rogelio had time to consider what was happening, how his life was changing course before his very eyes. Not everyone has this privilege; most of us miss the moment when our destiny shifts. Later, he’d told Henry that he had felt a strange sort of calm….
Henry’s route to Collectors was very different, and it began at Teatro Olimpico, after the third performance of his controversial play “The Idiot President.”

I’m guessing I would’ve appreciated much more about this story if I knew more about Peruvian politics, or even if I more enjoyed jailhouse buddy stories. As it is, I’m left with a relationship between two very different men incarcerated for very different reasons. I’m not even sure what the impact of one is upon the other, because this is, yes, another novel excerpt: as a “story” it ends with a thud. Grrrrr…

I’ve been unusually busy lately so perhaps it’s just that I wasn’t able to give the story the time it needed to grow on me. I’m beginning to have some sympathy for editors who say, “You have to grab me from the first line or it’s a pass.” Thing is, I was grabbed before the first line.

If he’d been asked, Henry would’ve said that he expected to be released at any moment. His captivity was so ridiculous to him that he could hardly conceive of it. He just couldn’t understand why anyone would be upset by “The Idiot President.” Had they seen the play? It wasn’t even any good!

I happen to have read Alarcón’s “The Idiot President” when it appeared in BASS 2009 (it’s also available online from its appearance in TNY of October 2008); I wasn’t blogging stories back then, so other than the basic plot of the play-within-the-story I don’t remember much about it. I was looking forward to this story, however, just on the basis of his name, and when I saw the reference to the play again, I was particularly pleased. Alarcón’s Page Turner interview explains the evolution of this story from the earlier one: the earlier story was to be part of a novel, which was scrapped. Now this story, picking up author Henry, is part of a novel. That’s an interesting route for a story to travel.

This is how it began: with Henry speculating aloud about how he might spend a few minutes alone with the woman in the stifling, degrading space.… When they finished, each on his own bunk that first time, both men laughed. They hadn’t touched, or even made eye contact, but somehow what they’d done was more intimate than that. For a moment, the pleasure of each had belonged to the other, and now something dark and joyless had been banished.

It’s an interesting notion that two men who have nothing in common can develop deep, even passionate, relationships with each other while in prison, particularly in as cruel and dangerous a place as the fictional Collectors (based on Lurigancho, Peru’s most infamous prison; the story was inspired by his visit there, as well as to other prisons). Perhaps that’s why that plot gets played from time to time in various books and movies; I’m sure there are more literary examples, but Papillon and The Longest Yard are all that come to mind at the moment. But there’s always a larger theme, and the larger theme here, which I suppose to be that of Peruvian social injustice, oppression, and corruption, as well as the larger issue of the effects of brutal incarceration, was lost on me. I’ve been motivated by fiction to learn more about new topics before, but not this time. It may be I’ve just reached a point of empathetic oversaturation.

More than three hundred inmates from blocks 6, 7, and 8 were killed, and, though Henry wasn’t there, part of him died that day, too. He lost Rogelio, his best friend, his lover – a word he had never used, not even to himself….
Henry mourned, even roused himself enough to participate in a few protests in front of the Ministry of Justice (though he declined to speak when someone handed him the bullhorn), but, in truth, the tragedy both broke him and spared him the need ever to think about his incarceration again. No one who lived through it with him had survived. There was no one to visit, no one with whom to reminisce, no one to meet on the day of his release and drive home, feigning optimism.

There’s a lot of power in the relationship between Rogelio and Henry, but in the end, at least the end of this story, it goes nowhere: Henry shuts down and moves on. Obviously the novel must show he doesn’t really move on, and it may be a highly effective opening move in a longer game. But as a short story, I’m afraid I will move on as easily as Henry apparently has at the close, with no particular interest in discovering the impact Rogelio had upon Henry’s life.

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6 responses to “Daniel Alarcón: “Collectors” from TNY, 7/29/13

  1. Once again your knowledge of full lengthness of these stories lets you in on more than I understood 🙂 I liked a lot about this story, but am happy to know that it is an excerpt, because, yes it all stopped very

  2. Pingback: Daniel Alarcón–”Collectors” (New Yorker, July 29, 2013) | I Just Read About That...

  3. Pingback: BASS 2013: Daniel Alarcón: “The Provincials” originally from Granta #118, “Exit Strategies,” Winter 2012 | A Just Recompense

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