I got a few odd sidelong glances from my fellow coffee shop patrons the other morning. But I couldn't blame them. I was, after all, hunched over a book and alternately biting my lip, putting a hand over my mouth, and even, in the final few pages, wiping stray tears from the corners of my eyes. I am not usually such an emotionally demonstrative reader, but then again, not every novel is Daniel Alarcón's Lost City Radio, a book so insanely good that I've been forcing it on everyone I know.
This debut novel takes place somewhere in Latin America, in a nation of battle-scarred and soul-bruised people, living in the uneasy aftermath of a decade-long civil war. It could be Alarcón's native Peru, but it could also be Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, or any other place that has suffered through a "Dirty War" -- we find out only that it has mountains, it has jungle, and it has an ever-expanding ring of slums around its capital city. The slums are swelling daily, as the country's remote villages are abandoned in droves by people seeking work. In order to reunite with loved ones and friends who have already made the trip, they rely on their favorite radio program: Lost City Radio, hosted by the honey-voiced Miss Norma.
Each week on her show, Norma reads out the names of the lost and the missing, many of whom eventually find each other in heartwarming, carefully orchestrated reunions. Norma, legendary for her smooth-as-silk delivery, is a comforting and constant presence to those who have misplaced their loved ones in the great scrum of the global economy. No unpleasantness makes it to the air, the regulations make sure of that. Alarcón writes, "She relied on the station's policy, which was also the government's policy: to read good news with indifference and to make bad news sound hopeful...in her vocal caresses, unemployment figures read like bittersweet laments, declarations of war like love letters. News of mudslides became awestruck meditations on the mysteries of nature..." One topic is strictly off-limits: the long war between the government and a rebel faction from the jungles known as the IL, which eventually ended in a suppression of the rebellionand a return to something like the status quo. Although her show ostensibly exists to reunite the lost, there are names that cannot be spoken over the air. One of them is the name of Norma's own husband Rey, an IL sympathizer who disappeared without a trace in the final days of the war.
One day, a little boy named Victor is dropped off at Norma's studio -- a kid from one of those remote and quickly emptying villages, 1797 (all the villages in the country have had their names replaced with numbers by the government). Victor has been entrusted with a list of all the names of 1797's missing, and has been sent to get help from the seemingly all-powerful Miss Norma. At first, she is none too pleased to be saddled with this haunted boy and his carefully written sheet of names. He's simply another pleading and lonely voice. But when she sees that he comes from 1797, a village that played a role in Rey's disappearance, she agrees to look at his list. When she sees her husband's name on the list -- not "Rey" but his other, secret name, the one he was known by during his clandestine IL missions -- she realizes Victor holds information that could tell her what finally happened to her husband, and whether he might still be out there, listening to her on the radio.
Names, namelessness, the speaking out loud of names and keeping silent about them: this is the thread that runs from one end of Alarcón's novel to the other. The country and its capital city have no name. The villages have had their names taken away and replaced with numbers. Rey's other name, the one under which he wrote incendiary articles on behalf of the IL in the early days of the war, is never spoken aloud in the book. Alarcón is a master at withholding information; the emotional resonance of Lost City Radio comes from all the things that we aren't told. We never find out what the ideological differencesare between the IL and the sitting government. The term "IL" stands for "Illegitimate Legion" -- a name that tells us nothing of their alleged cause. "The war had become, if it wasn't from the very beginning, an indecipherable text," Rey muses to himself in the ninth year of the conflict. "Had it begun with a voided election? Or the murder of a popular senator? Who could remember now? They had all been student protesters, had felt the startling power of a mob, shouting as one chorus of voices -Â— but that was years ago, and times had changed. No one still believed all that, did they?" The loyalist soldiers commit hideous atrocities against the suspected IL members they arrest. The IL insurgents commit atrocities against anyone suspected of being a government collaborator -Â— all for what end? We are never told. Alarcón withholds any detail which would have allowed an easy out. He never lets us hang the labels "good guy" and "bad guy" around the necks of the parties involved. He gives the reader space to make the realization: how could there possibly be a "winner"? How could a war like this ever actually "end"?
I've read other fictional works that dealt with South and Central American conflicts: The Inhabited Woman by former Sandinista government official Gioconda Belli, for example, mixes magic and fantasy in with tale of a young Salvadoran upper-class woman's radicalization. Argentinian author Marta Traba wrote a novel in the mid-1980's that is little known in the English-speaking world, Conversacion Del Sur (published in English as Mothers and Shadows), which is written as one long, harrowing conversation between two women huddled in a house in Montevideo, Uruguay, waiting to be killed. Better known to American audiences is Argentine-Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman's play Death and the Maiden, in which a woman kidnaps the doctor who tortured her in prison. But I was always able to preserve some sort of intellectual distance from the story. Alarcón collapses that distance to nothing.
Perhaps partly this is because Lost City Radio is an English-language novel, with no deadening layer of translation between us and the devastating material. But mostly it's because history has caught up to us, and the strange government doublespeak and obvious, transparent lies don't seem like an exotic fiction. The first time Rey is captured, he is sent to a prison called "The Moon," where he undergoes a hideous torture that Alarcón describes in brief, devastating glimpses. The Moon is a place that does not officially exist, according to the government. But even if it does, no one is sent there who wasn't a terrorist that deserved it. The acknowledgement that our own government holds "ghost detainees" at "black sites" comes readily to mind.
With any book that attempts to cover a long span of years and detail the lives of multiple characters, I usually reserve my judgment about the book's success until after I've gotten all the way to the end. This is because most authors, especially the young and show-offy, tend to fumble right where it matters: the conclusion. This is the point where, usually, all the big messy subplots and minor characters are supposed to come together in one big crescendo of transcendent catharsis, or something. Alarcón deftly avoids this trap by acknowledging, at all stages, the messy unknowableness of this nameless country and its tangle of history. To tie everything up into a neat little package would have been a grave disservice to the characters. Some of Lost City Radio's characters find what they are looking for, some don't. All of them have to find a way to continue moving forward, and in their way, they do.
Daniel Alarcón's impressive list of credentials (of which Iowa Writer's Workshop grad and Fulbright Scholar are only two) is richly deserved. These days, every debut novelist is met with manufactured hype and hubbub -Â— it's easy to forget that sometimes a new young writer is capable of generating a buzz simply because of his enormous talent. Alarcón is the real deal, and if we as readers are lucky, Lost City Radio is just the very beginning of a long career. I hope to be moved to tears in front of strangers in coffee shops for years to come.
The Writers' Block -- Listen to Daniel Alarcón read an excerpt from Lost City Radio.