Lost City Radio
Written by Daniel Alarcón
Published by Harper Perennial
Age level: Adult
As many of you may know, we are really excited to be reading adult books every other month in the Vamos a Leer book group. Although we love(!) young adult novels, choosing older books allows us to expand our reading list and discussions. These books draw on many of the themes that we discuss for younger readers, but tackle them in more complicated and nuanced narratives. Personally, this serves as our own form of professional development, contributing to our own background knowledge. In the end, these novels can allow us as educators to be more empathetic and understanding as we extend ourselves to really connect with some of the students and issues with whom and which we work.
Our first adult selection, and the book I will be reviewing today, is the 2008 novel Lost City Radio from Peruvian-American writer Daniel Alarcón. I first read Lost City Radio nearly three years ago after I had read his then newly-released novel At Night We Walk in Circles. I think I can speak for many when I say after you read Alarcón for the first time, you don’t stop. Instead, you find his other novel, his short stories, his podcast and his news articles fluttering through some of the most respected spheres on the internet, and you devour them. He is an intoxicating author and writes with such a beautiful simplicity, a created simplicity, that puts the reader directly into an experience and makes reading almost effortless.
Lost City Radio is set in an unnamed capital city in an unnamed Latin American country, and here we encounter Norma, the voice of the unnamed nation. Unlike the magical realism sometimes associated with fictional settings in Latin American literature, this novel is painfully realistic and political. Although set in an unnamed Latin American country, it represents Alarcón’s Peruvian homeland and draws on the country’s history of conflict and civil war. To read more about how Alarcón’s novel responds to history, see the Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies, Spring 2007. In some ways, we can read the novel as an intimate narrative of Peru.
But there’s a bigger landscape behind the novel as a whole. It’s certainly not limited to Peru. I would suggest, even, that the reason this book has been so well received is because of how it speaks universally to war’s aftermath and lingering effects. It resonates, in many ways, all of Latin American history, politics, dictatorship, struggle and collective consciousness. Instead of being about a single place or a history, it is about Latin Americans as a whole and the tragic dictatorships and civil wars that have torn apart so many of their countries.
In an interview with Bookpage, Alarcón admits that the experiences of his own family amid Peru’s civil war formed “the emotional framework of [Lost City Radio]… a somber, moving elegy to all souls similarly erased or displaced by war, poverty or ideology.” In the novel, he imagines a Sunday evening radio show, “Lost City Radio,” which attempts to reunite family members separated during the long and terribly violent civil war that has shaken the country to its very core. As the Berkeley Review notes, even the “premise for the novel’s call-in radio show…came from a Peruvian program, “Busca Personas” (“In Search of People”), which functioned as a radio bulletin board for the country’s internally displaced and the people who missed them.” In this fiction/non-fiction setting, the novel’s protagonist, Norma, is the voice behind the radio, but she isn’t just the official sound piece for the disappeared and the lost; instead, we find that she is conducting her own search as well, for her husband, who disappeared into the jungle at the tail end of the war, nearly ten years before.
We enter the novel after the war is over, but in a period when the country is irreparably changed. For Norma, she is but a ghost in the capital city, her voice fluttering through the radio waves, searching for the lost, for her lost. The momentum and lamenting tone of the story changes with the arrival of Victor, an eleven year old from the jungle community of 1797 (the government has renamed all cities and villages to numbers) shows up with a list of lost people, including the name of the boy’s father, and one of the secret identities of Norma’s husband, Rey, a college professor turned insurgency supporter. The passages with Victor are important in their own right for the story’s momentum, but they have a particular resonance for us as writers and readers at Vamos a Leer. Here, we see a glimpse into a young person’s life. Although aged by his experiences, Victor is still only eleven and Alarcón, in writing his character, provides us with a glimpse into an experience that is all too familiar in the real world: children lost and displaced in the midst of larger conflicts and war’s endless deaths.
Yet Victor’s narrative is only a piece of the larger story. At the larger scale, the novel unfolds as Alarcón unravels the paths of his cast of survivors. At the beginning, we follow Norma through the capital streets in the urban world she has created for herself since the war ended. Using straightforward, almost removed language, Alarcón normalizes Norma’s experiences in the aftermath of war. Then, with disjunctive writing, he begins to force the reader into the personal terror and struggles of the post-conflict years. As the story progresses, Alarcón masterfully intertwines stories from separate landscapes (rural jungle villages and war-torn urban centers), and embraces more than twenty years and a variety of characters. The narrative structure becomes convoluted; chapters are no longer separated from one time period to the other, or limited to one regional location. As the book continues, sometimes one sentence is locally in the present, while the next one takes place ten years previously and a thousand miles away.
All of this shows Alarcón’s mastery, his ability to put us in a place and rip us out of it all at the same time, to show us that memory is fickle. Readers come to engage with the complications of the post-war civilization in which Norma and the rest of the characters reside. Certain questions come to mind as the novel progresses: What is truth amid so much deception? How can someone survive after such grief? What happens in the vacuum of war? What is community and love when we have been torn apart from one another?
There is much more to be said, but I’ll leave it with that emphasis and invite you to tell us your thoughts. Have you read Lost City Radio? What was your response? Has his hauntingly beautiful writing had a similar impact on you?
If you are interested in looking at what others have had to say about the novel, please see the other reviews below:
Thanks always y nos vemos pronto,