The King Is Always Above the People
Daniel Alarcón
Riverhead Books, 2017; 256 pp
Reviewed by Guia Cortassa


In early 2011, Daniel Alarcón sat with then fiction editor Deborah Treisman to record an episode of the New Yorker Fiction podcast. Asked to pick a published story to read and comment from the magazine archive, he chose "Gomez Palacio", a short fiction by Chilean master Roberto Bolaño. During the interview, the author revealed his fascination for Bolaño's capability of making a single "description of a Universe" out of his whole production, having every bit of his oeuvre connect to the others, by style, by referencing or sampling himself, by making characters cross the boundaries of a single piece of writing and reappearing in others.

The same compelling ability of creating worlds now belongs to Alarcón himself. The King Is Always Above the People is both a short story collection and the novel in the form of a constellation. Daniel Alarcón's characters contain multitudes: they move through places and emotions, facing truth and consequences, carrying their secrets and working their magics.

The mystique of Southern American literature is strong and present in the Peruvian-American writing, but there isn't' any supernatural power or force driving the action, leaving the humans to their humanity: history, and its sense, is their magic weapon—be it the story of a life time or a millenary civilization re-surfacing, she is a generous mother that must be respected and obeyed, but a burden to shrug off one's shoulder, to find a new future. And the epic of times are nothing without their link to the land, the other narrative's unkind mother. Page after pace, one finds himself among people forever fleeing and people unable to admit their attachment to their home soil, people who sound familiar from the beginning, and lost souls who find their way, maybe. Mountains, seas, cities, small villages: a planet of stories linked like the strongest of the chains, yet unravelling with no mercy, leaving the astounded reader in that fascinating, if uncomfortable, shady land at the intersection of hope and despair. We are all the same, there: willing to leave, unable to move, looking for a port to set sail to our life, without ever detaching out feet from the dry land.