BookBrowse Reviews The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcon

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The King Is Always Above the People

Stories

by Daniel Alarcon

The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcon X
The King Is Always Above the People by Daniel Alarcon
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2017, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2018, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Richly drawn, full of unforgettable characters, The King is Always Above the People reveals experiences both unsettling and unknown, and yet eerily familiar in this new world.

The young and the restless. This moniker might well apply to the characters in this brilliant collection of short stories by Daniel Alarcon. A Guggenheim Fellow in 2007, Alarcon revisits familiar territory here, returning to topics of displacement and familial expectations.

Nelson, the protagonist in Alarcon's earlier arresting book, At Night We Walk In Circles, is back in a story or two, as is his brother, Francisco, who has successfully migrated to Berkeley, California. Exactly what Francisco is up to in the United States is anybody's guess, but it's got to be better than this poor unnamed South American country can offer Nelson. In one of my favorite stories in this collection, "The Provincials," when Nelson visits a sleepy coastal town to take care of business after a great-uncle dies, a local mistakes him for his seemingly more successful brother: "I had to remind myself he was addressing that version of me that lived in California, that worked with Hassan, the one who was going to be unspeakably wealthy as a result. Not the me who'd never left the country, who wanted to be an actor, but was actually a part-time employee in a copy shop run by a depressive."

Alarcon, who has one foot in Peru and the other in the United States, might know a thing or two about displacement across countries and its attendant restlessness, but he engagingly throws that theory for a spin: here, the itch to move is sparked within a country's own borders: from rural village to city, or city to port town all in search of riches of the monetary or romantic kind. In "The Auroras," Hernan leaves his university job on a one-year sabbatical and lands in a port city in a bid to reinvent himself. The restlessness within these men comes not just from physical separation – "The place you are born is simply the first place you flee," Alarcon writes – but from a longing to escape the binding shackles of a humdrum life. In the titular story, "The King is Always Above the People," the 19-year-old narrator leaves home to make his life in a small port town only to find that relationships are not that easily severed.

Alarcon also eloquently details the slow withering of the family unit, torn apart by globalization and other forces. Also in the title story, the narrator's father senses his inner struggle and wants to set him free. "Go do things, go see different places," he says, releasing the young man from family ties, "we can take care of the rest." Fathers and sons clash over life's ultimate goals, and elders often worry after seeing the young ones drift rudderless. "Tell me son. Are you sure you even want that visa? Are you absolutely certain? Do you know yet what you're going to do with your life?" Nelson's father asks him in "The Provincials."

This fog of uncertainty carries through quite literally in the haunting descriptions of small coastal towns: "The port is the only place that stays open late; in fact, it never closes, and its constant clang and hiss is the town's true lifeblood. But only ten blocks away, everything is quiet, and every night the fog rolls in, impossibly heavy, so an evening stroll is like walking backward in time, into a living gallery of diffuse, grainy photographs. On every corner, a yellow street lamp scatters its weak light, illuminating nothing, and the moisture simply hangs in the air, never appearing to rise or fall."

As in his earlier novel, Alarcon doesn't name the country or the towns in the collection, although one guesses these are places set in his native Peru. Alarcon probably deliberately shies away from tying down stories to place – it can be argued that the story of one economically withered town is pretty much like any other – but after a while, all that fog starts to make the reader feel untethered. Tie something down, you plead even as you are willingly swept along by Alarcon's mesmerizing writing.

"The people you meet, the ones you fall for, and the paths you make together, the entirety of one's life," are "a series of mere accidents," Alarcon writes. "And these too are accidents: the creeks you stumble upon in a dense wood, the stones you gather, the number of times each skips across the bright surface of the water, and everything you feel in that moment: the graceless passage of time, the possibility of stillness." But it is exactly these "possibilities of stillness" that strike a nameless terror in the hearts of the narrators in this brilliant collection. After all, Alarcon implies, in a world that is upended by globalization, staying still is a luxury not many can afford.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in November 2017, and has been updated for the October 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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