When asked to describe my country, Peru, most fellow countrymen say it is a country of contrasts. They have in mind its varied geography (deserts, high mountains and the Amazon jungle, now called `tropical rainforest' by prurient environmentalist trying to take distance from Conradian connotations), the rich gastronomy and profuse sartorial repertoires. But the biggest contrasts in the Inca's land do not reside in its many ecosystems, abundance of dishes in its restaurants' menus or the colorful clothing of many of its inhabitants, no. Its biggest contrast is the one that makes possible a coca-fed quechua-speaking peasant and a BMW-driving jet-setter inhabit the same political demarcation, so-called Peruvian nation, and hordes of destitute glue-inhaling children and private-beach goers dwelling -if that word is applicable-, probably a few blocks away from each other, in its capital city of Lima.
In a country like the US of A, lives evolve in a space of over-determined system of controls, a structure of power that finds its formal expression in myriad of laws, regulations, systems of surveillance, bureaucracies in charge of enforcement, etc. That's what keeps the ball rolling, the mechanisms of power well oiled. In this ambit, freedom is sold to the public as a right/entitlement to choose from vanilla or strawberry, Coke or Pepsi, Lexus or Mazda, Democratic or Republican, gay or straight, etc. So everybody is happy and the underlying structure of control and submission is never -or seldom- put in question.
How can you articulate such a thing, a sophisticated legal apparatus of regulation and control, in a country like Peru, in which people don't even have a common tongue, let alone a common culture or common social references? So, as long as the profound `contrast' -let's call it deep inequality, for the sake of accuracy- all institutional mechanisms of control in the realm of so-called `civil society' are doomed to break down: crime to become rampant, corruption widespread, guerrillas -`terrorism'- endemic. How the whole thing works, then? If you want to know the answer read Daniel Alarcon's War By Candlelight, a collection of short, explosive, kaleidoscopic stories, dealing -in the surface- with strong, anecdotic, even comic, circumstances and situations of all kinds but, deep down, lurking as a powerful undercurrent, with all the applicable mechanisms that make such an unbelievably unequal society possible. From the open use of force and violence, to racism inculcated from early age in children at their schools, Alarcon courageously traverses the darkest and most twisted corridors of socially imposed -socially accepted- practices of discrimination, humiliation, military-exercised violence and a myriad of others to perpetuate a status quo that to any foreign observer would appear obviously impossible. He gets into the souls of people, he shows us the deep anger beneath the surface, the rage-fueled rebellion, and the absurdly ritualistic, big and little revenges, as well as, friendship and love, like beautiful flowers improbably blossoming in the midst of putrid detritus. Alarcon captures a snapshot of a society divided at its very core, in a vertiginous state of flux in which one side tries to keep its privileges and the other side, in non-articulated ways perhaps, but relentlessly, rebels. The serene conviction of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, in Lampedusa's `The Leopard' "all needs to change for everything to remain the same", the lucidity of a need for reforms to prevent social collapse, is completely absent from the minds of the rich and privileged.
If you want to learn about how societies chronically in the verge of complete social anomie function, read Alarcon. Some of the same images are present in the first works of Vargas Llosa, mostly in `Conversation in the Cathedral', which Alarcon recommends, but the intensity, the rigorously articulated account of its subject matter, without `literary' embellishments, feel very new. Perhaps because Peru of today portrayed by Alarcon is a society much closer to the apocalypse than 50's Peru under the benevolent dictatorship of General Odria. Perhaps because he is a young man, part of a post baby-boom generation, with less proclivity to dishonest `artistry' and self-indulgence.
Also, to Alarcon's credit, he does not fall into the easy trap of dirty language, eschatological interchanges or `liberated', torrid descriptions of sexual situations, very trendy and perhaps very commercially profitable in contemporary Peruvian literature and cinema. After much applause and sycophancy Vargas Llosa's work ended up being a form of high-brow pornography for the Peruvian high classes and it appears his example was widely followed. I don't think Alarcon will go down the same path, you can tell he's wood from a different tree, grown up away (Oakland, California) from a home he misses, a people he tries to make sense of and a country he wants to come to terms with. Besides one or two profanities here and there and just a quick reference to sex once in a while, Alarcon keeps us focused on the horrors, he forces us to become witnesses of a new `Heart of Darkness', this time not up the river of a 19th century Belgian Congo but just steps away from home, in contemporary South America. Good job, Daniel!