A Circus at the Center of the World

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 2.

Now I’ll turn from delight (over “Raymond’s Run”) to lukewarm contentedness. The story I’ll mention today is “A Circus at the Center of the World”, by Daniel Alarcón. The story was listed as part of the notable nonrequired reading of 2007 in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, edited by Dave Eggers. “A Circus at the Center of the World” is available here, where it was published: the Winter 2007 edition of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Alarcón has received much praise. The VQR biographical stub describes him as a native Peruvian now living in California. He was raised in Alabama, and he writes fiction in English. Alarcón was part of Granta 97: Best of Young American Novelists 2, published in 2007. He broke ground with a collection of short stories (War by Candlelight), and then moved on to a novel (City Radio). A relatively long story of his, “City of Clowns,” was published by The New Yorker back in 2003.

Enough about the author. Let’s bore into “The Circus.” The story is about a mediocre schoolteacher, Elijah Manau, stranded in a jungle town whose name is a number (1797: one figures it is a police state in which most if not all towns are numbered instead of named). He is an urbanite, and thus lacks the habits and the constitution for a jungle setting (his skin turns carbuncular, he is clearly incompetent with botany and agriculture). He likes a woman from town, the widowed mother of one of his students. That particular student becomes increasingly important as the tale progresses.

This story is structured around a sense of foreboding, which is not exactly matched by events during the narrative time of the story. This sense is propped on two sentences, the first of which is the opening sentence: “Elijah Manau was a rosy-cheeked man from the capital, and had been living in the village of 1797 for six months when the soldiers came.” The second of these sentences starts off the second section of the story: “Later, when his mother died and he left 1797, Victor would remember this day as the beginning of the town’s dissolution.” We are left with the forecast of gloomy events to come, rather than the events themselves.

There is much that is quote-unquote exotic here: a man whose arms were cut off and has to till a field regardless; wrecked roads and festering skin diseases; an ominous troop of soldiers kept more or less in check by a burly and gentlemanly (quote-unquote, again) captain. The story doesn’t exactly revel in these aspects, so it’s not over the top, like it is in so many stories I’ve read recently. The language works about fine, and the events unfold with interest. The postponement to which we are subjected is clever. The final scene, with its covert erotic component, makes us intruders into a world of barely hidden lesions and passions. Having said that, I wasn’t left overly enthusiastic. It’s worth reading, in any case. The longish title surfaces near the end of the story, apparently without much significance; it might be rewarding to prod the story more carefully to find it.


  1. Alarcón comes back to the same story and setting (numbered towns, the violence, the mutilated man, the schoolteacher...) in his novel Lost City Radio.

  2. To be honest, I haven't read Lost City Radio. We'll see if I'll get to it eventually. I don't know if it'll be easy to pull off an entire novel out of 1797 and Manau, though. There's that risk I mentioned: exotica do beckon, both readers and writers. I find their siren call quite risky.

  3. I didn't like the novel. I felt it was cold. And artificial. I'm not a fan of exotica unless it is extremely well done. And I believe that, although his Peruvian origins, Alarcón's perception of the jungle and this generic third-world country feels foreign to me. Feels like the one of someone who doesn't quite know the place.

  4. I confess I do anticipate getting a similar feeling from the novel as the one you've described. I'll have to browse through it before actually plunging in. The subject matter strikes me as a new kind of Orientalism (a maudlin example of this is the sugary and very popular novel The Kite Runner).

  5. 100% de acuerdo. Todo lo que le he leído lo siento artificial y poco peruano, pero como podría ser de otro modo si ha vivido toda su vida en EEUU. Alarcón es parte de un fenómeno que incluye a la culpa liberal disparada que produce el americanocentrismo de Bush junto con el acceso de minorías etnicas a los programas de MFA gringos. Otros productos de esta especie de sindrome del informante nativo literario son Danticat de Haiti, Junot Díaz de Republica Dominicana y Jhumpa Lahiri de India (nacida en Londres).

  6. Juan: Me parece interesante tu diagnóstico. Creo que sí hay un interés anglosajón por lo exótico que algunos autores han sabido aprovechar muy bien. El ejemplo más dramático que he leído últimamente fue un cuento de Sandra Cisneros recogido en Contemporary Fiction. Yo rescataría de ese cuento un pedacito, que podría ser un cuento autónomo más o menos interesante. Pero el resto es muy difícil de digerir. Alarcón pareciera caminar muy por el borde en ese sentido. En Junot Díaz hay algo de eso, pero creo que tiene suficiente talento para sacarlo a flote... aunque a ratos puede acercarse al punto de drown. Sobre Lahiri espero escribir alguito antes de que se acabe el mes.


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