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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

War By Candlelight - Daniel Alarcon

Before I landed on a Mario Vargas Llosa ‘s “Death In The Andes” as my book to represent Peru, I had already purchased “War By Candlelight” by Daniel Alarcon, a collection of his short stories. Once I learned that Alarcon had moved to the Untied States as a three year old I thought a better representation of the nation would be the Nobel Prize winner. But not to let a book go to waste I made my way through the his stories. My edition (published by Harper Perennial) contains a meaty section on the writer himself and although he left a troubled nation when only a small child, he did return to teach photography as a Fulbright Scholar and in his younger years did return each year for a visit. This collection of short stories all reflect on Peru so maybe I shouldn’t have been so hasty to make Mario Vargas Llosa my pin up boy for the month!!

This collection contains nine short stories.

First up we have “Flood” a tale of three youths who participate in a riot (after starting it by throwing a rock) in Lima during a downpour. The subsequent consequences of their actions and their visits to the local “university” (the jail) tell the story of a Capital in chaos. The city is divided by gangs, the jail by rebel forces and other criminals, the persecution as well as the disbelief that violence is not just a way of life. A simple story but one that reveals a melting pot of issues.

“City of Clowns” is also set in Lima where we have a journalist who has been assigned a “feature story” of following the city’s clowns. The people who make a meagre living whilst in disguise, the beggars who are dressed up to sell smiles, poetic words or mints. Our protagonist grew up as a single child with only his mother as support, on the wrong part of Lima, getting his life education (as well as his practical one) by being denigrated by his class mates. Another moral tale of a city in disguise, one that is not what it seems, a place of crime, extreme poverty and ignorance.

I worked and slept and worked, and thought as little as possible about my old man, my mother, Carmela. I thought about clowns. They had become, to my surprise, a kind of refuge. Once I started looking for them, I found them everywhere. They organized the city for me: buses, street corners, plazas. They suited my mood. Appropriating the absurd, embracing shame, they transformed it. Laugh at me. Humiliate me. And when you do, I’ve won. Lima was, in fact and in spirit, a city of clowns.

We then move to “3rd Avenue Suicide”, set in the USA our hero is a Peruvian immigrant who is living in sin with his young Indian girlfriend.  Here we have the clash of three cultures (indian, Peruvian and USA) and what is acceptable as an immigrant – and what parts of our culture we bring with us, or leave behind. We all carry shame….

“Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979” – this is their Independence Day. A shorter story telling the tale of a boy killing black stray dogs and hanging them in the streets, with painted slogans on their bodies, as part of the clandestine people’s uprising. His fate is sealed when he chases a particularly sleek black dog.

In 1970, a town disappeared beneath the Andes. An earthquake. Then a landslide. Not a village but a town. Yungay. It was a Sunday afternoon; my father and I listened to the World Cup live from Mexico City, Peru playing Argentina to a respectable draw, when the room shook vaguely. And then the news came slowly; filtered, like all things in Peru, from the provinces to Lima, and then back out again to all the far-flung corners of our make-believe nation. We were aware that something unspeakable had occurred, but could not name it just yet. The earth has spilled upon itself, an angry sea of mud and rock, drowning thousands. Only some of the children were spared. A travelling circus had set up camp at the higher end of the valley. There were clowns in colourful hats and children laughing as their parents were buried.

“Absence” is also set in the USA where we have a young Peruvian artist visiting New York for the opening of his solo exhibition. His original request for a 90 day visa was declined in Peru, his actual 30 day visa was reduced to 14 days when he arrived in the States and we listen to his depiration as he struggles with the limited time to assess a potential new homeland (he would of course become an illegal immigrant) and his struggle with the languages and the feeling of disconnection he now has with his violent paintings.

A very short story is “The visitor” where we have the survivors of a landslide in the Andes, burying their own and counting and retrieving the parachutes which conatin aid, before they are graced by a visitor.

The title story “War By Candlelight” is the story of Fernando, a revolutionary, told in non sequential date snippets. You piece together his story and his journey to revolution through his family tales, his experiences at university, at protests etc.

Don Jose, watching his son toast the houses he would build for Peru’s homeless, watching his son tremble with emotion at the warmth of the family surrounding him, recognized that Fernando’s heart was like his own; nostalgic but combative, caring but suspicious, able to bundle great ideas into intractable knots of personal anxiety. It is the way men begin to carry the world with them, the way they become responsible for it, not through their minds, but through their hearts. And though they shared much, the differences between Don Jose and his son were also striking, and also a question of heart. Don Jose and his son were also striking, and also a question of heart. Don Jose saw that as well and did not, as others did, attribute those differences to something as simple as youth.

“A science for being alone” is the story of  a destitute Peruvian who proposes to his “sweetheart” every year on their daughter’s birthday. The day of this story is her 5th birthday. Another story of pursued happiness, potential better times ahead, grand plans that are beyond reach.

Finally we have “A Strong Dead Man” – a sixteen year old is being taken by his older cousin to the park for a wlk on the day his father has had his third stroke. A reflective tale of  sanctity of life, relationships, memory and loss.

Overall this is a great collection of stories, each a subtle reflection on a theme but holistically all what it means to be Peruvian, as well as the standard existentialist themes. Every story is a small movement, starting off quietly before the large crescendo, all contributing to a masterful symphony. I really enjoyed all of these stories and again I’ve had another glimpse into Peru and the years of political struggle, the hardships, poverty, natural disasters and more. I’m glad I took the journey.

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