'Lost City Radio' is a poignant and deeply moving novel from a promising new author, which looks intensely at war's damaging effect on society and the individual. Ever since the civil war that took her husband ended, Norma has been the voice of consolation to a people broken by violence. Every week, bereft families listen to her radio show as she reads out the names of the missing, those who vanished in the clamour and brutality of the drawn-out conflict, with the hope of reuniting the few survivors with their families. Successes are few; her true gift is the offer of hope. Although her face is unknown to her listeners, her name and spirit are celebrated by a wayward nation searching for a guiding force. But her life is forever changed when a young boy from a jungle village enters her radio studio and provides a connection to the husband she thought lost - the husband she has not seen for ten years since departing for the war. Her story and those tangled up in it reveal a country in flux, desperately seeking signs of life, and reasons to continue, amongst pain and uncertainty. Stunning, timely, powerful and absolutely mesmerizing, 'Lost City Radio' probes the deepest questions of war: from its wide reaching affect on a society to its intimate emotional impact on every person involved. This searing yet tender first novel marks Alarcon's emergence as a new voice in American fiction, fully-formed and ready to be heard.
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Daniel Alarcon was born in Lima, Peru, in 1977 and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. His collection of short stories, 'War By Candlelight', was published in 2005 to great acclaim.From The Washington Post:
Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley
Daniel Alarcón's thoughtful, engaging first novel is set in a fictitious South American country where the reader will immediately recognize fragments of recent history in Argentina, Chile and, most particularly, Alarcón's native country, Peru. No name is ever given to the country: Alarcón means the novel to be a fable about civil wars and their repercussions, rather than an account of a specific war within a specific place to which we bring all the baggage of familiarity.
With the publication of Lost City Radio, Alarcón is off and running. His collection of short stories, War by Candlelight, was published two years ago to deservedly high praise. Now still in his late 20s, Alarcón has an impressive and rather unusual background. He was brought to this country when he was very young because of the dreadful violence that swept through Peru in the 1980s and '90s during the terrorist uprisings led by the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru movements. In recent years, he has spent a lot of time in one of the poorest barrios of Lima, and much of his fiction is about the people who live there.
As Lost City Radio begins, the war of almost a decade between the country's government and the terrorist group known as IL has at last ended, with a crushing victory by the government. All over the country, people are missing, their fates a mystery. In hopes of finding the ones they have lost, people turn each Sunday night to a program on the only radio station permitted to remain on the air in the capital city. It is called "Lost City Radio," "a program for missing people," and its host is a woman named Norma:
"Every Sunday night, for an hour, since the last year of the war, Norma took calls from people who imagined she had special powers, that she was mantic and all-seeing, able to pluck the lost, estranged, and missing from the moldering city. Strangers addressed her by her first name and pleaded to be heard. . . . With her prodding, the callers revisited village life and all that had been left behind, inviting their lost people to remember with them: Are you there, brother? And Norma listened, and then repeated the names in her mellifluous voice, and the board would light up with calls, lonely red lights, people longing to be found."
Norma, who is in her early 40s, sees the program as a service to the country's lost but also as a way of looking for her husband, Rey, who had been involved with IL and disappeared nine years ago from a jungle village. Now a boy from that village, a "quiet and thin" 11-year-old named Victor, has shown up at the station with a list of names that the villagers want Norma to read on the air: the names of the lost, one of which turns out to be the pseudonym that Rey had used in the jungle in hopes of shielding himself from government scrutiny.
At this point, the novel begins its steady movement backward and forward in time: to the chance meeting of Norma and Rey many years ago and his arrest that same night; his agonizing year at a desolate place known only as the Moon, where soldiers and government agents imprison and torture IL members, actual or suspected; their loving but childless marriage; her rise at the radio station and his at the university; his regular disappearances into the jungle, for scientific research but also for revolutionary activity the precise nature of which Norma never knows.
The arrival of the boy is what sets all this off. He knows nothing of his father -- presumably he is yet another of the lost -- and his mother drowned only three days ago: "Since then, his life had acquired a velocity he could scarcely comprehend. Everything was out of order, the contents of his world spilled and artlessly rearranged." Now he has nowhere to go, so Norma's boss tells her to take him. At first, they are guarded with each other, but gradually a measure of warmth develops between them. Gradually, too, events occur that bring Norma closer to an understanding of her husband's fate and of the complex legacy he has left her.
These are all interesting and appealing characters who emerge as discrete human beings rather than mere cardboard representations of certain inescapable Latin American social and political realities. Still, the dominant character in the novel is not its protagonist, Norma, but the war itself. Its malign effects are felt everywhere, from the anonymous hamlets of the jungle and mountains to the wealthy neighborhoods of the capital and its sprawling barrios, acre upon acre of shacks steadily climbing up the bleak hills surrounding the city as more and more people flee there from the beautiful but violent countryside.
Alarcón's sympathies obviously are with the country's poor and dispossessed, as should be those of anyone who knows about the poverty and discrimination with which Latin America is afflicted, but he declines to choose sides in the violent conflict. Alarcón excoriates the government, "a blind machine" with "its myopic bureaucracy, its radical incompetence," its brutal treatment of everyone who falls into its grasp, but he is even harsher on the IL, with its "coordinated attacks on the more vulnerable symbols of government power," its "campaign of propaganda that included the infiltration of newspapers and radio stations," its "kidnappings and ransoms, in order to finance the purchase of weapons and explosives facilitated by supporters abroad." He asks what it all means and says:
"Consider the improbability of it: that the multiple complaints of a people could somehow coalesce and find expression in an act -- in any act -- of violence. What does a car bomb say about poverty, or the execution of a rural mayor explain about disenfranchisement? . . . The war had become, if it wasn't from the very beginning, an indecipherable text. The country had slipped, fallen into a nightmare, now horrifying, now comic, and in the city, there was only a sense of dismay at the inexplicability of it. Had it begun with a voided election? Or the murder of a popular senator? Who could remember now? . . . Even [nine years ago] anyone paying attention should have known what was coming. But they had stepped together into this chaos, the insurgency and the government, arm in arm, and for nine violent years, they'd danced."
Alarcón has done his homework well. Those words express, eloquently and exactly, the self-destructiveness of violent insurgency and official retaliation. The victims are the people whom the revolution ostensibly aims to serve. This has been true in just about every actual country in Latin America, as it is true in the fictional one that Alarcón has invented. Lost City Radio is a fable for an entire continent, and is no less pertinent in other parts of the world where different languages are spoken in different climates but where the same ruinous dance is played out.
Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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