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Fiction Review Telling tales of strangers in strange lands

LEO BOIX recommends an excellent collection of stories about the Latino experience of migration

The King Is Always Above the People
By Daniel Alarcon
(Fourth Estate, £8.99)

 

IN HIS Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, Edward W Said argues that migration is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home, whose “essential sadness can never be surmounted.”

 

His words come to mind while reading The King Is Always Above the People, a new collection of short stories by Peruvian writer Daniel Alarcon which depicts a world of Latino migrants always on the move. Changing countries, language and culture, they leave their families and the traditions of Latin America behind in order to forge new lives.
 

Alarcon's are moving and witty stories of people trying to survive in foreign lands, sometimes forced out of their own countries or communities by poverty, violence or simply by lack of opportunities. Some live in big cities near docks or ports, where migrants and foreigners congregate to find jobs and build their lives and where perils and insecurities are always lurking.

 

They “came in trucks, and cleared the land of rock and debris, working in the pale yellow glow of the headlights, deciding by touch and smell and taste that the land was good,” he writes in the first story The Thousand.

 

These are a group of migrants trying to build homes before the authorities force them to leave with bulldozers. They try to raise their children, to start all over again, because for them “the land had no owner and it had not yet been named.”

 

The Ballad of Rocky Rontal is a compelling story of a poor Latino kid living in southern Los Angeles, who tries desperately to break away from a seemingly endless cycle of criminality and destitution within his community of surenos (southerners), but everything will go against him. He ends up in jail like his older brother, although he tries to reshape an experience of rage and disenchantment into one of redemption.

 

In The King is Always Above the People, the main character is a young internal immigrant who leaves his small home town to try his luck in a big port city full of danger and marginality. He manages to find a job in a shop and, posing as an economics student, lives with an elderly couple.

 

But after his sweetheart from his hometown arrives and suddenly announces that she is pregnant with their child, all his dreams will suddenly change. Or will they?

 

Republica and Grau tells of young boy Maico, forced by his violent father to beg at a busy street intersection in a Latin American city alongside an old blind beggar. At the end of the day, they divide their takings under the watchful eye of the boy's parent.
 

Their co-dependant relationship has a sudden end, one triggered by greed and domestic abuse, and

it typifies a book full of desperate characters and unsettling experiences.

 

But these are more than tales of migration and exile. The King is Always Above the People is a collection which also contains brilliant stories of doomed love, uncertain futures and broken families, written in a luminous and powerful prose.
 

An exciting and ambitious work.

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