On Daniel Alarcon’s War by Candlelight: Stories

War by Candlelight, published by Harper Collins in 2005, is a collection of short and long fictional pieces which all deal with the subject of war. Of course, the wars that are explored are only not constrained to the population’s image of what this kind of conflict is. We do not only bear witness to armed conflicts in the jungle, to the crossfire between enemies, to exploding bombs, to soldiers fighting until they die with their principles, and civilians who are caught in the sheer brutality of it all, we are also given the privilege to the seemingly little but potentially life-altering wars that the common man goes through.

The collection, authored by the Peru born and Alabama raised Daniel Alarcon, who was recently included in The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40,” a prestigious list which the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Jeffrey Eugenides once belonged to, gives us nine stories: “Flood,” “City of Clowns,” “Third Avenue Suicide,” “Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979,” “Absence,” “The Visitor,” “War by Candlelight,” “A Science for Being Along,” and “A Strong Dead Man. In the first story, aptly named “Flood,” we are given the story of a group of teenage boys living in the gang-filled city of Lima. It tells of the deluge of brutal riots that occupy the streets of their broken and corrupted city. The three friends are suddenly pushed into the fray as they are accused of the murder of a child which happened in one of the skirmishes that poured out into the streets. In a matter of days, inside the prison they often wondered about, they eventually realize the gravity of the conflict they are in the midst of, a conflict, which once, was a simple game that made them feel like adults. In the second one, the poignant and painfully funny long story ‘City of Clowns,” a journalist comes to grips with the death of the father who once abandoned him and the odd reconciliation between his mother and the mother of his half-brothers and half-sisters. As he tries to go through the motions of his life, pretending that nothing important had happened, he recounts his childhood that he shared with his father, of his departure from the small town where he was born in, of the theft jobs his father joyfully included him in to earn money, and of the scrutiny and insults he faced as a student in a new school environment. At the middle of the story, to escape all the troubles of his life, and quite coincidentally, to finish up an article he is doing, he dresses up as a clown, and with the aide of two other pranksters, take to the city, giving joy and terrot to the population. In the seventh story, “War by Candlelight,” we are given the long and eventful life of a former engineer and a soldier, as he tries to reconcile with the war he is fighting with that of his desire to have a child and to have a family. In the midst of the black-outs and the flashes of light from the nearby explosions, they face their own battles against fear and the uncertainty of the times. Finally, in the eighth story, “A Science for Being Alone,” a man faces his biggest trial, and that is to win the hand of the woman he loves, the woman who also happens to be his ex-fiancé and the mother of his child. But before he does so, he must first cross the threshold of money, culture and class.

What I found most exceptional with the collection is Alarcon’s masterful rendering of Lima, Peru. Immediately, I was reminded of two things. The first being Graham Greene’s masterpiece, The Power and The Glory, where, successfully, he was able to depict the almost barren and decrepit state of Mexico during the 1930’s with such precision ad accuracy that I could almost literally feel the dry and stagnating reality the whiskey priest soberly walked in. The second would be Fernando Mereille’s film, City of God, where he was able to render into film the brutal and deadly world of gang-filled Brazil through the eyes of the hopeful teenage photographer, Rocket, one of the many characters in film history who I will always remember. Alarcon, in his fiction pieces, was able to give me what I found in those two works of art, which is the sheer harshness of a lush land that has surrendered to the endless destruction caused by the irrational, territorial and ultimately destructive nature of man, a land that remains hopeful for change and peace. Take into consideration this passage from the “Flood”:

“The Siglo XX tore across the avenue, a half dozen of them. They were badass kids. They went straight for our dike and wrecked it. It was a suicide mission. Our old men were beating them, then the gangsters too. Arms flailed in the dim lights, Siglo XX struggling to break free. Then their whole neighborhood came and then ours and we fell into the thick fight of it, that inexplicable rush, that drug. We spilled onto the avenue and fought like men, side by side with our fathers and our brothers against their fathers and their brothers. It was a carnival. My hands moved in closed fists and I was in awe of them. I pounded a kid while Choco held him down. Renan swung his arms like helicopter blades, grinning the whole time, manic. We took some hits and gave some and swore inside we lived for this. If Lucas could have seen us! The water spilled over our broken dike but we didn’t care. We couldn’t care. We were blind with happiness” (Page 2-3).

Alarcon’s language is beautiful and precise that in just a short paragraph, he was able to show the reader the chaotic nature of a rumble and convey the beauty and elation that the protagonists felt as they threw their punches, as they took their hits, as they fought side by side, like one battalion against a maelstrom of enemies. He was able to convey the hostility of the whole event, the danger that accompanies it and the fear that surrounds it, but at the same time, he was able to convey how this is essential to their lives, how this is one of the driving forces of their existence, how this fight keeps them happy, how defending their fort is their top priority. Only a handful of writers can do this with a scene such as a riot. Only a few can draw out such elegance and such beauty and such importance in a very moment of utter unrest. Daniel Alarcon is one of them. Regardless of content and plot, he does this, unfailingly, capturing the layers of emotions that a single event brings forth, concretely and with utter clarity. Certainly because of this, he is a writer all of us should be looking out for.

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