Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Daniel Alarcón’s “Collectors” was originally published in the July 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
The only thing I have by Alarcon was “Second Lives”, the piece published when he was listed as one of The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40″ (click here for my thoughts). I remember quite liking that piece, so I was excited to read “Collectors” to see if it would be worth checking out his novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, which comes out later this year. “Collectors” is an adapted excerpt from this novel. I usually find these somewhat problematic, but it didn’t bother me here. I thought this story worked quite well on its own, even if it did not convince me I need to read more about the character Henry Nunez in the forthcoming novel.
“Collectors” begins by helping us get to know two men who are destined to share a cell at a brutal South American prison, apparently modeled after Peru’s Lurigancho prison, located in the desert just outside of Lima. This notorious prison holds over 11,000 inmates but has the capacity to hold only 2,500.
The first we read about is Rogelio, an illiterate young man who finds it easier to play dumb about most everything and, thus, ends up going to prison when he is captured running drugs for his older brother. The second man is the older, esteemed playwright, Henry Nunez, who wrote and produced The Idiot President, after which he was arrested for terrorism.
It does take us a while to navigate through the background of these two characters (the story is almost a third of the way through before we move from Rogelio’s past to Henry’s), but we finally get together with them in a cell they each rent from Block 7′s de facto leader, Espejo. On visiting days, Espejo kicks out Rogelio and Henry so that he can rent the cell to the inmates who have wives or girlfriends coming to visit. Those evenings were the loneliest for the two men, back in the cells that now had a familiar but now foreign scent.
While I enjoyed the story as it introduced us to these characters, it was the small details Alarcón injects throughout, never quite explaining things but just leaving us to accept that’s the way they are. For example, the fact that an inmate has gained control over the cells and rents them out to other inmates. You definitely want a cell, too. Besides giving you a place to sleep besides out in the open or under some stairs, where else can you go when tension reaches its breaking point?
The story, which takes place in the early 1980s, takes us all the way to a prison uprising (presumably demanding better treatment) that, after the army comes in to help, ends with hundreds of inmates dead, leaving one to consider the infamous prison massacres taking place in Peru during this time. For me, the real value of this story resides in the subtle way Alarcon allows these intimations to pervade a piece that otherwise might have little going for it.
Daniel Alarcón’s “Collectors” presents several difficult problems to the reader, especially to the reader who is new to him and ignorant of Peru, but I think both the story and its author are important.
“Collectors” takes place in a Peruvian prison famous for its crowding and chaotic conditions and famous as well for a crackdown in 1986 that resulted in the deaths of almost 300 inmates. At the same time, those 300 deaths were just a fraction of the 70,000 people who died in Peru during the two decades of rebellion and crackdown between 1980 and 2000. This story memorializes one of those invisible men who died in the prison uprising, and at the same time it addresses the difficulty of memory: how horror makes its witnesses weak.
The memory of what happened may evaporate, unless someone younger and stronger appears to listen and make memory speak. Alarcón clearly has emerged to assume that role.
A literary device at work in the story is the “play within a play.” One of the inmates is a playwright, jailed for his “treasonous” writing, and he produces his offending play in the cell block. In this play, “the president” manages to have a “servant” killed, but there is also a son — a witness. In a way, it is actually Alarcón who plays the role of son — he tells the stories he has heard, gives them shape and form so they can pass into the community. One of my colleagues said, speaking about our Cambodian student, “It is the children who tell the parents’ stories.” One of the problems with telling the story is form. How to tell the story with enough form that people will listen, but with enough force so people feel the gravitas, the urgency.
Alarcón has made a mission of listening: he has visited the prisons of Peru often. He is, of course, a perfect listener. He knows the language and the history, but he has the strength of the second generation: detachment.
The enormity of problems which Peru faces makes the clarity of Alarcón’s style important. He does not let style interfere with the reader “getting” what he is presenting; magical realism, for instance, is not a factor in his method, and in this story, there are no dislocations of time or consciousness to interfere with the reader’s absorption of the situation. His careful, understated and detailed writing style has none of the hyperbolic. It is as if he views these events as so grave that he must use simplicity as his truest tool.
His literary stance is closer to the journalist than to the novelist, and in that, I feel there is more to know about him. It appears that reportage is important to him, given his current appointment as a “Visiting Scholar at the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program.” (I am also struck by the way his fiction piece has appeared in the same article as one by Atul Gawande, an essayist extraordinaire. I would, in fact, like to compare and contrast how the two of them work.)
Despite its wealth, Peru’s problems are, it seems, enormous. The country is divided into severe ethnic strata: the rich white elite is only 15% of the population, while indigenous Indians make up 45%, and those Indians are further separated from the rest of the nation by their Quecha language, as well as by the fact that a third of them speak only Quecha.
The situation of the children is precarious. The national childhood malnutrition rate is significant, and Unicef says that childhood anemia is at 32% nationwide, while in Pasco it is above 50%. The silence of Rogelio and his slightness seem both related to this lack of nourishment.
To add to this deprivation is the fact that one in four children work, some of them in the mines, apparently, and others, begging, and in the words of one source, some perform tricks on the street for money. The school system is in some areas very poor, and many, like the Rogelio of this story, drop out. Education for children with special needs hardly exists.
What Alarcón addresses specifically in this story is the system of law. Various sources attest to the serious lack of trust Peru’s citizens have in its judiciary, and as in Rogelio’s case, people can languish in jail without a trial, and some languish because no one has bothered to speak to them in their language, a situation Rogelio sort of represents, given that he cannot read.
Corruption is the word that appears over and over again in relation to the Peruvian judiciary and government; in fact, one former president, Alberto Fujimori, fled the country to Japan to escape prosecution for corruption. Corruption is embodied in the story’s boss man, Espejo. Espejo is a prisoner who is able to “own” a cell and “rent” it out. How can that be? How can that be? Espejo, the Espejo who has a picture of himself on a white horse, has appropriated his real estate, presumably through force. One assumes that Alarcón wants us to associate him with a general system in Peru of economic appropriation and subjugation.
One question I have about this story is in its similarity to “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Argentine writer Manuel Puig. I don’t know quite what to make of the comparison, although I feel sure Alarcón has chosen to take on this territory in full cognizance of Puig having gone before. Puig’s Molino is the living embodiment of the life force that is imagination, but there is a “romance” to his portrayal that Alarcón avoids. It is as if for Alarcón flights of fancy are inappropriate in the face of holocaust.
I have only begun to address what it is Alarcón is trying to do in “Collectors” and how he is trying to do it. For all his simplicity, Alarcón is not an easy writer. He does not seduce the reader with beauty, lyricism, magic, transformation, tricks, or false hope.
I am put in mind of Elie Wiesel.
I look forward to hearing what other people have to say about this writer and this story, its title, its characters, its images, its meaning, and its author. I have the sense of Alarcón as having the potential to be a fundamental voice in world literature.