“The Idiot President”, by Daniel Alarcón

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.

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5 Responses to “The Idiot President”, by Daniel Alarcón

  1. petersavaiano says:

    We will have the opportunity to discuss details of the style, plot, characters, themes, etc. of “The Idiot President” at our meeting on Wednesday. Even if you have read the story already, it is a good idea to read through it again in preparation for our discussion. I encourage everyone to post a response below this one, commenting on your impressions, questions, agreements and disagreements (or anything else you feel would contribute, for that matter). They don’t have to be long, complicated, or even related to my post, but it’s a good idea to get the “virtual” debate started a few days in advance. Happy reading, and I’ll see you on Wednesday.

  2. Carmen González says:

    Hellow!, It´s supposed that I have to prepare the summary and I have done it but I dont know till last minut if I´ll be able to attend so that I´ll try to writte (with many mistakes I´m sure), to Ana just in case so you can read it.
    I found the story very intresting in a short space the author is able to picture so many situations! It is not a flat story and let the reader to imagine a much more complex world.
    It´s great the way one can imagine the political and social background and implication of the December group, the contrast between the warm humid city and the extreeme weather of the mountains, pouring, freezing mixed with the altitude of the cordillera and the unconfortable way of transportation they use. The time passed and the impact it has on the miners conditions, on their aproach over their own labor conditions since the December past visit to the place. It´s a very serious situation (no visa, temporary jobs, no familly support, not so much hope for Nelson) but it is told with so much humour and humanity!. Th story is so complete and so complex that is really a masterpiece, on my opinion, of course!.

    • Hello Carmen! Thanks for your comment. I will read it in your name in case you finally don’t come to the colloquium. I agree with you, it’s a very good short story and a way to aproach to the peruvian reality with humour and humanity. Ana

  3. Carmen Valladares says:

    Good evening, I have the role of culture collector for The idiot President and at firs although the story was plemty of culture references seems to me difficult refers tem to United States culture, except the brief mention of American engineers in the poor mining village.
    Note.- By the way, I would like discuss about using the term American to refer only to the United States
    Nevertheless, according Peter’s presentation Daniel Alarcon is an American author, so his work is American literature although, in my opinion, this work is an anthropological picture of peruvian society.
    So I find great differences in cultural aspects, way of living in the ‘sierra’, Indian culture, itinerant theatre, among others. And similarities, youth hopes, when time dosn’t matter, and man hopeless when you realize that you never reach what you wanted.
    Drinking, singing, loving is quite universal enjoyment.
    I enjoied the reading.

    • petersavaiano says:

      Thank you, Carmen. You are absolutely right – it is difficult to find specific references about the culture of the United States, since the story’s setting and characters are all distinctly Peruvian. I think we are going to have an interesting and lively discussion about this issue. As I mentioned in the welcome note to the Reading Circle, in all of the readings this year we are going to challenge our most traditional notions of the nation-state and national literatures. Perhaps in “The Idiot President” the notion of nationality is not clearly defined, but we can find material to discuss nevertheless.
      In response to your comment about the use of the term “America” or “American” to refer to the USA and its residents, I would like to preface this afternoon’s comments by saying that in English, for better or for worse, this is the only possibility we have. The name (and idea) of “America” is itself a European colonial construct, so personally, I am all in favor of opening up these terms to include a number of different realities. But, for the time being, and for lack of other terminology, we will have to continue to use “American” to refer to the people of the United States.

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