Daniel Alarcón had been driving for days along one of the most dangerous routes in the world -- a serpentine service road recently carved into the dense Peruvian countryside -- when he suddenly sensed that he wasn't alone. "You look around you and think, OK, up in the hills somebody is watching us drive," says the young novelist, who is making several appearances at the Book Fair this weekend. "It was that kind of feeling."
Unfortunately for Alarcón, his quest to trace the path of Peru's cocaine production was far from over.
"The day that I arrived in Kimbiri, there had been two murders of just random people who had been killed and found hanging by some trees in the jungle," he says. "I arrived and I called my contact and he said: 'Hurry up! We're going out to look for these bodies.'"
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If venturing into the dark heart of drug production sounds unusual, then that's because Alarcón is not your normal novelist.
Born in Lima but raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Alarcón has excelled at mining the murky multi-cultural spaces between countries and languages. His latest novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, will resonate with everyone in this city of emigrants and exiles. It is the story of two brothers, one born in the U.S. and the other in an unnamed South American country.
In the background of the book, however, looms Peru's long struggle with civil war and, more recently, drug production. Alarcón -- one of The New Yorker's 20 young authors under 40 -- recently spent a year as a fellow year at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
"I've been trying to figure out what to do with that," he says. "Am I an investigative journalist or not? In some ways I am... I love the work of investigative journalism."
Alarcón spent his fellowship reporting on Peru, first its prison system -- which is featured prominently in At Night We Walk In Circles -- and later its drug trade. But after his trip to Kirimbi, Alarcón put the drug project on hold.
"Literally 20 minutes [after arriving in Kimbiri] we we're in the back of a jeep driving into the jungle" looking for dead bodies, he says. "At that point I said to myself: Man, this is really dark and I don't know what I'm really getting out of this."
Authorities found the bodies the next day, but Alarcón had already made up his mind to pull back on his drug reporting. "Part of the reason that I didn't [continue] is that we had a baby and it seemed a little dangerous, so there was that whole issue. The first time I went down there and toured those areas, it was before Elisa was born. And after Elisa was born it was like: Do I really want to do that again and go to the epicenter of the Peruvian drug trade and risk my life? It doesn't seem quite as important at the moment."
"I think that one has to make peace with your family and your obligations," Alarcón adds. "It's certainly a personal discussion that you have with your partner. You sort of figure out what your priorities are, and your partner doesn't want you to stop being the person that they married, and the person they married is someone who goes out and does those things."
"So there is definitely room for negotiation," he says. "But when your baby is four months old, it's really intense. You don't want to miss anything and you don't want to get killed. I assume that when your kid is 15 years old you don't want to get killed either, but you have a different perspective on it."
Bizarrely, one of the threads connecting Peru's bloody past and its booming but problematic present is the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group whose lofty ideals in the 1980s have given way to pragmatic drug production.
"The reality is that even if the Shining path is not the force that it used to be, social conflict still exists and violence manifests in other ways," Alarcón says. "There is no armed political insurgency to speak of in a place like Mexico, and yet no thinking person would say that there is not a war going on. It's just that now the war doesn't have a political content, it has an economic content: who controls certain routes for this highly profitable product. And that conflict is going to play out in Peru. It is playing out in Peru right now, with less fanfare and, until now, thankfully less bloodshed."
Despite the drop in deaths over the past three decades, Alarcón still worries for his native country. "I'm not by nature a particularly optimistic person," he says. "The state is very weak because the state is very corrupt. In a place where there are baroque levels of corruption, it's very easy for non-state actors and in particular drug traffickers with infinite money to come in and take over the apparatus of the state."
Hence the harrowing road to Kimbiri.
"You go to places where the presence of the state is very weak and where the officials that are there are very easily corruptible," he says. "Then it's fairly simple to set up a parallel authority that is enforced through punctuated violence. And that's my concern. Anybody that is paying attention to what is happening in Peru should be concerned about as well."
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"Also it's ridiculous to talk about 7 or 8 percent growth and not talk about how much of that is actually illicit money that is being laundered, you know?" he says. "Let's not pretend that all these good times have a cost."
Daniel Alarcón will be judging a Literary Death Match tonight at Bardot at 8 p.m. He will be appearing with Noviolet Bulawayo at the Book Fair on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and at 4 p.m. the same day during a reading by the Miami Poetry Collective.