June 2005

Angela Stubbs


War by Candlelight: Stories by Daniel Alarcón

Daniel Alarcón may just be one of the best storytellers writing fiction today. His debut collection, War by Candelight, is a very poetic compilation of short fiction that jumps right off the page at you. You can feel each of these stories ignite into complex storylines and emotions. He has a fearless quality to his work that sucks you into the lives of his characters and the realistic situations they find themselves in.

Passion, civil strife, beauty and natural disaster surround each of the literary landscapes here in these nine vibrant stories. You should be forewarned -- stepping into Alarcón’s world is anything but a Sunday stroll through the streets of Peru. Alarcón, a Peruvian native, writes about life in Lima through the eyes of narrators who give exciting and often depressing insight into the everyday lives of its people.

While politics and protests surround Lima, Oscar, the narrator of “City of Clowns” recalls what his relationship was like with his father after he learns of his death. His father had remarried and had children with her. Oscar now had siblings who were complete strangers to him, people he didn’t know, or care to know. The kind who were wealthy and living the life he never experienced with his father. A journalist, Oscar decides to dress up as a clown for the day and report on his experience. While incognito, he replays memories of robbing the houses of schoolmates (the ones his father helped renovate) for money, for necessities, for the finer things in life Oscar and his mother had been deprived of. There is a bitter-sweet love he has for his father, even in death. This same bitterness exists for his mother, who has since befriended “the other wife.” "City of Clowns" is full of fierce emotion and vivid images of the political outbursts within the city and mental outbursts within Oscar.

Lima is rife with turmoil and strife while Peru's Andes mountains and blue skies provide a beautiful backdrop for the chaotic times within its capital city. In “Lima, Peru. July 28, 1979,” violence is sport. The narrator and his companeros go on a canine killing spree that that has its roots in the social inequality that exists within the streets of town.The title story of the collection, “War by Candlelight” examines the life of Fernando, a fine art student-turned-father who abandons his ideals about brotherhood and camaraderie for those of the hardened government who believe poverty and inequality can only be remedied by guerilla warfare. Although Fernando agrees to take part in the war effort, he finds the sacrifices he’s making to be worthwhile. Alarcón creates detailed images of a country at war with itself.

Even though politics and war affect the majority of the narration in these stories, Alarcón does show his character’s sensitive and humorous sides. “A Science for Being Alone” portrays a young Peruvian man who has lost his job, yet remains hopeful of wooing the mother of their 5-year-old daughter into marriage for the 5th time. He finds himself in competition with an unknown American man whom Sonia, his daughter’s mother, met while in America learning English. As his daughter Maya’s birthday nears, he finds himself struggling to find a way to propose, in order to keep them both in Peru with him. America offers peace and opportunity whereas Lima seems to be sucking the life out of his family with everyday that passes. This story, despite its sadness and reality, had moments of humor and hope. The opening pages of this story provide us with the humor the other stories lack. Alarcón knows how to tell good stories and that’s exactly what “Third Avenue Suicide” is. On the outside, we meet a normal Manhattan couple who have just moved in together. On the inside, we get a closer look at a young Indian girl who is hiding her relationship with her Peruvian boyfriend from her mother.

Alarcón’s stories cover a great deal of geography, as well as emotional territory. His keen eye and amazing descriptions give the stories the kind of detail often lacking in debut fiction. The narratives in War by Candlelight aren’t always uplifting or even bright, but consistently written with the voice and color they deserve. He knows exactly how to maneuver his stories and the characters in them by giving them a solid finish. This collection is a fine one that will put Alarcón on the map as a legitimate and creative soul, who’s story-telling could hypnotize any reader. This is an extraordinary collection by a younger author whose potential exceeds the 189 pages you’ll read here.

War by Candlelight: Stories by Daniel Alarcón
Harper Collins Publishers
ISBN: 0060594780
189 pages