BASS 2013: Daniel Alarcón: “The Provincials” originally from Granta #118, “Exit Strategies,” Winter 2012

I’d been out of the Conservatory for about a year when my great-uncle Raúl died. We missed the funeral, but my father asked me to drive down the coast with him a few days later, to attend to some of the post-mortem details. The house had to be closed up, signed over to a cousin. There were a few boxes to sift through as well, but no inheritance or anything like that.
I was working at the copy shop in the Old City, trying out for various plays, but my life was such that it wasn’t hard to drop everything and go. Rocío wanted to come along, but I thought it’d be nice for me and my old man to travel together. We hadn’t done that in a while.

When someone leaves, someone is necessarily left behind. This story does a masterful job of showing all sides: those who left and couldn’t put enough distance between themselves and the past; those who plan to leave; those who stayed behind by choice (at least that’s what they claim); and those who will stay behind forever, by necessity. But there’s more. The presence of an actor gives opportunity to examine authenticity and performance as well, in a highly engaging combination of those themes. What is real, and what is an act, in this story? How does the act reflect the underlying reality?

Manuel left his family town in an unspecified country long ago, as a boy, to pursue and education. His goal was a professorship at an American university, but he never got that far. Now his son, Nelson, our first-person narrator and tour guide on this journey, has recently graduated from the Conservatory as a trained actor, and is biding his time (working in a copy shop, auditioning for whatever parts are available) waiting for his American visa to come through, at which point he’ll join his brother Francisco who left for San Francisco years before. Nelson remembers Francisco’s early letters about his new life, but it seems he hasn’t heard much lately.

Manuel and Nelson to the family town to attend uncle Raúl’s funeral. Along the way, they happen upon a family confrontation in an intervening town involving a motor-taxi left behind by one deceased Joselito. Nelson notes the shift from authenticity to performance:

It was something I’d been working out myself, in my own craft: how the audience affects a performance, how differently we behave when we know we are being watched. True authenticity, I’d decided, required an absolute, nearly spiritual denial of the audience, or even the possibility of being watched; but here, something true, something real, had quickly morphed into something fake.

This sets us up for the main event: the inevitable confrontation in the family town between Manuel and son, and those who stayed behind. What takes this above a routine story about going home again is Nelson’s point of view as an actor. He sees everything in terms of a play, and, at first accidentally and then on purpose, assumes the identity of his brother in San Francisco. The one who plans to leave, tries out the role of one who has left, and sits around a restaurant table drinking with a group that was, many years ago, left behind.

That’s a step above routine, all right. But wait, there’s more.

As Nelson gets deeper into his role and the drama in the restaurant, he begins to think of it as a script. The text of the story, in fact, changes to script format.

SANTOS: No, Erick, times have not changed. The youth are not all that different than before. Take Manuel. Let’s ask him. Dear Manuel, pride of this poor, miserable village, tell us: how often do you wake up missing this place you were born? How often do you think back, and wish you could do it over again, never have left, and stayed here to raise a family?
Manuel is cut off guard, not understanding if the question is serious or not. On the television: a shot of the Plaza by night. Quickly recovering, he decides to take the question as a joke.
MANUEL: Every day, Profe.
Everyone but Santos laughs.
SANTOS: I thought this much. Some people like change, they like movement, transition. A man’s life is very short and of no consequence. We have a different view of time here. A different way of placing value on things….We feel abandoned. Disrespected. You left us. Now your son is talking down to us.

I’m typically not a fan of script reading – I find it difficult – but here, this fit so well with the character of Nelson, and the character Nelson the character Nelson created, as well as the ongoing theme of authenticity and performance, I had to admire it. It’s a technique that provide ample room for irony, and, as seen in the passage above, emotional resonance. The structural decision to enclose the main plot in the Joselito subplot – on the way back to the capital, Manuel and Nelson again pass through Joselito’s city, this time with additional perspective – gives a nice circular feel to things.

But that’s still not all.

At 30 pages, it’s a bit longer than most BASS stories, but it’s also a story that deserves very close reading on a sentence level. The entire story is told from the vantage point of some time in the future, by virtue of one or two well-placed narrative comments. And there is where the heart of the story lies: the aftereffects of this road trip. For that matter, that’s probably the heart of all fiction, this projection into the future. After all, if nothing changes, why bother to write the story at all? The span of time, a span far longer than the two or three days that elapse in the plot of the story, is laid out in this early passage:

A few hours south of the capital, the painted slums thinned, and our conversation did too, and we took in the desolate landscape with appreciative silence. Everything was dry: the silt-covered road, the dirty white sand dunes, somehow even the ocean. Every few kilometres there rose out of this moonscape a billboard for soda or beer or suntan lotion, its colours faded since the previous summer, edges unglued and flapping in the wind. This was years ago, before the beaches were transformed into private residences for the wealthy, before the ocean was fenced off and the highway pushed back, away from the land’s edge. Back then, the coast survived in a state of neglect, and one might pass the occasional fishing village, or a filling station, or a rusting pyramid of oil drums stacked by the side of the road; a hitchhiker, perhaps a labourer, or a woman and her child strolling along the highway with no clear destination. But mostly you passed nothing at all. The monotonous landscape gave you a sense of peace, all the more because it came so soon after the city had ended.

This is “just” description, the sort of thing you might skim through in a lesser story of this length because, while it may be beautiful prose, it’s often not really important. But this isn’t just scenery. It tells a story in itself. It uses that projection into the future to compare what was at the time of the story and what came to be in the present of the narrator. It adds insight on a way of life, a state of mind, the kind of unconscious expectations the people we’ll meet all carry. Neglect, isolation, monotony: this is what surrounded the family village, and leaving took a faith of its own of what lay beyond.

I’ve read three Alarcón stories now, all stemming from the novel-in-progress that originally generated “The Idiot President” (BASS 2008, before I started blogging stories, still available online via TNY) then disintegrated then was reborn as a related but new novel, excerpted in TNY as “The Collectors” (grrrr, excerpts passed off as stories), which also generated this story, originally a chapter until it “somehow outgrew its confines” as he explains in his Contributor Note, and ended up a stand-alone story. Whew. Did you get all that? Don’t worry about it. Here’s the nutshell: This story is worth reading, and I’ve put the new novel At Night We Walk in Circles (due out this month) on my read list. I have to. It’s about the Nelson who was projected into the future by this story. And I want to see what happens.

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.