'The King is Always Above the People' is subtle and sensitive

Sunday, November 12, 2017 - 9:03pm

On April 28, 1945, Benito Mussolini was executed. His lifeless body was dragged to a public square in Milan, where it was defiled by the crowd gathered there and hoisted upside down with a meat hook on a half-built gas station. An infamous photograph of the hanging depicts hundreds with their gazes fixed upon the expressionless corpse swaying between the clouds.

In the title story of Daniel Alarcón’s latest short story collection “The King Is Always Above the People,” postcards portraying an unnamed dictator in a pose similar to the deceased Mussolini are sold as souvenirs. Those postcards bear inscriptions of the same name as the collection: a seven-word phrase that encapsulates the main concern behind the set of ten stories.

The world Alarcón has crafted reflects the current state of the Americas, both North and South. Social unrest, immigration and opportunity all frame the political backdrop that is present in every story, yet never explicitly detailed. The characters that populate this world are uncared for by society, ready to explore what lies ahead but unable to leave their past behind. Alarcón blends all these elements to craft powerful stories that animate the voices of the voiceless.

Often, the opening story is most vital to the lifeblood of a collection, and “The Thousands” is no exception. In only three pages, it relates the hardships of an unnamed people as they attempt to make new lives for themselves on fallow land in jury-rigged homes made from plastic tarps, rubber tires, quilts and other odds and ends. Despite government attempts to intervene and enumerate this people, they remain united under the titular label the cartographers gave them, a name they liked “because numbers are all [they] ever had.” And though the characters present in the subsequent stories are not explicitly one of “The Thousands,” they are cut from the same cloth. Much like the many oppressed and underprivileged persons in countries south of the border, they are people who are easily described by their numbers, with their names and stories going unnoticed. However, through rich prose and a conventional yet unfamiliar approach to the short story form, “The King Is Always Above the People” shines a crucial light on the thousands, if not millions, of people whose true lives are kept hidden from the rest of the world.

The characters Alarcón has drawn up for the collection are imperfect human beings, stuck between the past and the future. They kill, they indulge themselves, they take advantage of others but they have the capacity to love, to change, to better themselves. What makes them complex is their endeavors to act on that capacity, which often results in failure but opens the door for important growth and understanding. All of the stories’ main characters are explicitly male; their masculinities are harmful to them and becomes a burden they must confront. In the tightly crafted “República and Grau,” this conflict is observed through three different lenses: youth, adulthood and old age. Maico is a ten-year-old boy who is forced by his easily-angered father to “apprentice” under an elderly, blind street beggar in order to help keep his family afloat financially. In working with the beggar, Maico realizes that the old man’s blindness is more than physical and is able to clearly see that his father’s machismo and anger stems from misguided yet well-intentioned efforts to protect him. Through a brilliant ending, Maico achieves clarity about the future unknown to any of his elders. Though this clarity is unattainable for most adult characters in the whole collection, it is what drives them. The collapse of the titular structure in “The Bridge” and how it disrupts life as the story knows it represents the unsustainable present, which should link past and future but is slowly collapsing under the weight of thousands.

All of the stories in “The King Is Always Above the People” revolve around how choices in the present determine a future still unknown, but they all approach it distinctly through varied narratives and writing styles. “The Ballad of Rocky Rontal” is an aptly-named narrative about a Los Angeles gangbanger’s quest for redemption after a life of violence, entirely written in the second person. Halfway through “The Provincials,” a story about a boy and his father’s uneasy return to their hometown, the story trades in paragraphs for a screenplay that illustrates the boy masquerading in an unattainable role he’d been preparing his entire life, a young man who successfully left behind his home country for a better life in the United States. And in “Abraham Lincoln Has Been Shot,” the totemic figure of American values is now a statesman from modern-day Chicago with a male lover and aspirations to be a poet before all of this is quickly taken away from him with a single bullet.

Through each of these stories, Alarcón builds an innocent setting that invites the reader to lovingly study it and contemplate its deeper meaning long after the book is closed. The characters he presents reveal an oft-neglected, yet urgent viewpoint which is necessary for all to experience. Through subtle politics which slyly makes themselves known through Alarcón’s writing, he has created a backdrop all too familiar to the happenings of the world today. While Daniel Alarcón has a ways to go before he is a true equal to Flannery O’Connor and Gabriel García Márquez, like the back-cover blurbs say he is, “The King Is Always Above the People” has proved him to be a remarkable modern voice for Latin America.