A Writer Reads: The Magic of Imagination

A post by guest author Mary Burns

At Night We Walk in CirclesOne thing I like about Daniel Alarcon’s book, At Night We Walk in Circles, is the way he interchanges characters he means us to see as real with the characters in a play they perform.  Life imitates art and art imitates life and he fiddles with the divide between thereal and the imagined in a way that has special meaning for writers.  At least it does for me.  Much of life, he seems to say, is as strange as if it is made up.  Perhaps it is made up. That thought evoked memories, but I can’t say whether or not they are memories of actual events or events I invented for a story.  The act of imagination is engrossing.  To write a good scene you literally have to see it and hear the voices of the characters speaking; you have to use your nose, think of how the textures of things feel, describe how food tastes.  If the writer fails to bring the power of his or her imagination to a scene, it won’t come alive for the reader.  So why not make something up when the occasion calls for it?  A writer can do that, a clever child does it all the time, and this is what Alarcon’s actor character Nelson does when he is mistaken for the son of a very old woman in a small town in the Andes.  It is an unusual opportunity for an actor while also being instant karma for having revealed to other family members that the old woman’s son Rogelio is dead.  What’s worse, he died in prison.  Actually it is not Nelson who reveals that truth but Henry Nunoz, who has hired Nelson to play his son in a touring production of The Idiot President, the play that Nunoz was thrown in prison for performing in the old days, and which he has revived.

The relationships between the characters also flow between the so-called “real”( although of course it is a reality that Alarcon invented for his novel) and imaginary.  Some days they stick to the roles they adopt in the play; other times they are their street selves.  But is there inevitably some leakage? (“I feel more comfortable where there is less oxygen,” he (Henry) said.  “The play makes more sense that way,” and because he was the president, they returned to the highlands.)

magicMuch of this shape shifting occurs on the road.  The revived and modified theatre company Diciembre stops in various Andean villages as they tour The Idiot President through the provinces (The provinces – this was another thing Nelson had come to understand.  No matter where you went, no matter how far you travelled in the far flung country, the provinces were always further out.  It was impossible to arrive there.).  As someone who loves theatre, it is easy to picture a few people gathering in a field or a town square or a school gymnasium to watch three men perform what had been a controversial political play.  It isn’t the content that stirs them so much as the presentation, the actors acting, wearing simple costumes, adopting different identities, making a spectacle.  The touring conditions are terrible but Henry Nunoz, Nelson and the third actor, Patalarga, remain committed until Jaime, the older, shadier brother of the man who died in prison literally boots them back to the capital, perhaps Lima since Alarcon has Peruvian roots.  So ends the tour, except that the old woman who is Jaime’s mother believes that Nelson is her late son.  He is so convincing that Jaime makes him stay and promises to pay him for performing the role of Rogelio to keep his aging, senile mother happy.  In her mind, he is no actor; he is Rogelio.  Sounds like the magic of imagination to me.

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly, enjoying itself to the full of its bent, and not knowing it was Chuang Chou.  Suddenly I awoke, and came to myself, the veritable Chuang Chou.  Now I do not know whether it was then I dreamt I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.  Between me and the butterfly there must be a difference.  This is an instance of transformation.

(Famous Taoist conundrum)

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