"Lost City Radio"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 2, 2007)
One could argue that the fictitious “IL” a guerilla freedom-fighting group that occupies prime real estate in the novel Lost City Radio is quite similar to the Shining Path, the Maoist guerilla movement in Daniel Alarcón’s native Peru. But in writing about the disaffection that sweeps through the poverty-stricken masses, or about the ill-effects of simmering war, Alarcón shows us his intelligent debut novel can translate easily to just about any war-torn country around the globe. Alarcón has said that in writing Lost City Radio, he was “trying to create a city and culture that would seem realistic to a lot of different people in a lot of different places.” The book carries out this task very successfully.
Lost City Radio is the name of a Sunday evening radio news program where people from all over the country call in trying to trace their missing after nearly a decade of war. The show’s host, Norma, who is also the protagonist of the novel, has a private motivation in conducting the show religiously each week: every Sunday she hopes that her missing husband, Rey, will call in looking for her. Rey and Norma fell in love and married just as the country was on the cusp of violence. Rey a botanist by day, gets involved with the IL and disappears. Norma isn’t quite sure where his allegiances lie -- after all he disappears into the forest for his work quite periodically. It’s when he goes away and never returns that she is forever cast in the wait-and-watch limbo state. “For ten years, he had existed in memory, in that netherworld between death and life--despicably, sadistically called missing--and she had lived with the specter of him, had carried on as normal, as if he were away on an extended vacation and not disappeared and likely dead,” Alarcón writes.
Then one day, a 11-year-old boy, Victor is abandoned at the station, carrying a list of missing from his village, 1797, that he wants read over the radio. 1797 has special significance for Norma. It was the village where Rey went missing. Befriending Victor could yield possible clues into Rey’s disappearance. Norma does so and uncovers the secret to her husband’s double-sided life and a personal betrayal he carried out. In what I thought was the only shaky note in the novel, the connections made here seem to be a slightly farfetched and therefore not completely believable. Rey’s personal life is made clearer but his connections to the IL remain forever sketchy. Sadly Norma never gets closure “from the burdens of waiting and hoping and wondering.”
In a recent interview, Alarcón has said, “In the Peruvian struggle and conflict there was an entire group of men and women who were seduced by the idea of violence, and they allowed themselves to participate in it while washing themselves of it.” Lost City Radio brings out this dichotomy beautifully. Rey, after all, belonged to such a group. Alarcón does not take sides in the novel and blames both the government and the IL for “dancing arm in arm for nine violent years.” Worse, not many could even remember why they had done so. “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,” Alarcón writes.
In Lost City Radio, one of the government officers in a village has “a cheaply framed photograph of a Swedish mountain scene.” Norma observes it as “a way of idealizing life in the country’s provinces: transforming the lost, war-ravaged hamlets into tidy Scandinavian villages with crystalline streams and quaint windmills, hills covered with bright swaths of green.”
“Our mountains are not like that,“ she observes. In one of many touching scenes in the book, later, when Norma and Victor piece together a picture puzzle of the city, she lingers on the perfect picture perfect that slowly comes together before her eyes, sights that she remembers from childhood but that have since been destroyed or lie untended. “It was easy to forget that the city had been beautiful once,“ Alarcón writes, “that its elegant plaza had once been the beating heart of a nation’s capital.“ Turns out perfect images of mountains and cities belong only in pictures. Sure the mountains are “not like that,” they are not pristine or picture-perfect. As Lost City Radio strikingly shows, after years of havoc wreaked by a simmering war, neither are the cities or the country’s ill-fated people.
- Amazon readers rating: from 21 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Lost City Radio at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- War by Candlelight: Stories (2005)
- Lost City Radio (2007)
- At Night We Walk in Circles (October 2013)
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- Official website for Daniel Alarcón
- Reading Guide for War by Candlelight
- The Quarterly Conversation review of Lost City Radio
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About the Author:
Daniel Alarcón was born in Peru, but raised in Birmingham, Alabama
He is Associate Editor of Etiqueta Negra, an award-winning monthly magazine based in his native Lima, Peru.
His fiction and nonfiction have been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salon, Eyeshot and elsewhere, and anthologized in Best American Non-Required Reading 2004 and 2005.
His story collection, War by Candlelight, was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. He returned to Peru on a Fulbright Scholar to Peru prior to publishing War by Candlelight. He is also the recipient of a Whiting Award for 2004.
He he lives in Oakland, California, where he is the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College.