Daniel Alarcón is a young author who has in recent years staked out a presence for himself on the American literary scene. His first collection of short stories, War by Candlelight, and his first novel, Lost City Radio, were praised by critics and readers alike, to say nothing literary prize juries, who have given his promise visible recognition. He has also edited a book about fiction writing, co-published a graphic novel based on one of his stories, worked as an editor for a Peruvian literary magazine, and created a streaming radio program.
That said, what does Alarcón’s literary presence consist of, exactly? I am not fond of reading of a particular work of fiction by establishing a correspondence with its author’s biography. In this case, however, I think few of the details of Alarcón’s lived experiences can shed some light on the perceived originality of his work. Born in Peru, raised in an affluent community near Birmingham, Alabama, and educated at elite American universities, today Daniel Alarcón lives and works mainly in the United States, writing in English, his primary language. But he writes about Peru and Peruvians, though the country’s name is tactfully omitted on many occasions. This probably doesn’t mean that American readers have developed a more profound interest in Latin American life, class conflicts, or immigration/emigration experiences, although some surely have. What it probably does mean is that the literary establishment has opened up to a rather new way of seeing our global society, and more importantly, to representations of the human faces that make up such a society. Case in point: is Alarcón an American author? Is his work American literature? Or is he Peruvian? Does his work fall into the category of Latin American literature? My answer to all of the above questions is “yes”. Identity is not cut-and-dried, nor can it be. Borders aren’t always what they used to be, so naturally they can’t mean what they used to. Former contradictions are rendered complimentary.
“The Idiot President,” the short story by Daniel Alarcón that I have chosen for this month’s discussion, is an excellent sample of this recent literary/artistic/commercial phenomenon. Peru provides the setting for the story, whose characters are, without exception, Peruvians, although neither is explicitly identified as such. The United States exists only as a far-off foreign land and as a vague but obsessive plan that doesn’t come to fruition. However, the language and form of the story are distinctly American: a way of writing that Rushdie (in the introduction I mentioned in my first post) calls “creative writingese”, that is, a product marked with the stamp of one of the many Creative Writing programs and departments at American Universities. This is not to say that Alarcón is not a talented writer – in fact, I think just the opposite. He’s a very gifted narrator who, with the help of the publishing industry and the media, has managed to capture the attention of a very diverse audience. This is no small feat. I would be very interested, nonetheless, in taking a look as his graphic novel, or listening to one of his radio broadcasts, or following his work as an editor, just to see how the form of his other methods of cultural production might vary, and in turn, enrich his capacity for telling a story, in the more traditional and literary sense of term.
I’m inclined to imagine that the themes and motifs that run through the story at hand, “The Idiot President”, in no way register with the direct experience of most of its original readers, who are the upper-middle class readers of The New Yorker. The politics, culture, recent civil war, particularly harsh class divisions, a particular brand of racism, the presence of neocolonialism, even the narrator’s aspiration to emigrate: all or most of these elements are rather foreign (in more ways than one) to the typical American reader, despite having read works by a few celebrated authors associated with the Latin American “boom”. So why publish and read this kind of story in the first place?
We all know from personal experience that we do not only read to see ourselves mirrored. Many times, quite the opposite is true. Many of us began reading in order to explore other situations, other realities. There does, however, need to be some sort of connection. The connection in “The Idiot President”, in my opinion, comes from an identification that the reader establishes with the narrator (which is not the same thing as the author). Both come from a middle or upper-middle class background, even if the country of origin differs. The reader enjoys the kind of story that the narrator has to tell, one of Bildung, told in a strong first-person “I”, emphasizing individual experience, even if there isn’t a happy ending. The reader understands the language, both literary and aesthetic, of the narrator, even if the landscapes and names seem exotic.
This observation leads me to infer that the reader identifies – can identify – with the narrator because of a shared class background, with all that such a background entails. I do not mean to condemn this identification, nor this class background. There is nothing essentially negative about addressing this issue, despite the fact that our society considers seriously speaking about class a taboo. I think Alarcón is particularly talented when it comes to incorporating a message of solidarity into his work, a necessary contribution to our bourgeois society’s evolving view of the phenomenon of globalization. “The Idiot President” does not end on a particularly happy or constructive note, and this is certainly a characteristic it shares with many other works produced by a self-effacing bourgeoisie. I sincerely hope that Alarcón, an extraordinarily promising young writer, does not limit himself to the role of the “anti-bourgeois bourgeois” writer, albeit one in a world with new borders. I see this sort of self-limitation as possible, but unlikely. If he continues to develop as a writer and literary creator, and uses his voice to help teach the practice of solidarity, as well as challenges our notions of the role the storyteller is supposed to occupy, as he has started to do, then I believe he has the force to become a great writer and chronicler of our ever-shifting global societies.