In 'Lost City Radio,' faint signals from a country's lost heart
At first glance, Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón has the look of a political fable. It tells the story of an anonymous Latin American nation, first ravaged by a pointless war and now governed by a faceless totalitarian regime. The book's tone is chillingly Orwellian.Skip to next paragraph
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But politicians – either of the left or the right – are neither the real heroes or the villains in this haunting debut novel. "Lost City Radio" is indeed a wrenching commentary on the devastation war can inflict. But the mystery at the heart of this story is not political – it's a riddle of the human heart.
Alarcón gained considerable attention with the 2005 publication of his short-story collection "War by Candlelight." The 20-something author was born in Peru but raised mostly in the United States. He writes in English – carefully, precisely, and beautifully.
The protagonist of "Lost City Radio" is Norma. She lives in the capital city of her unnamed country and is one of its celebrities even though almost none of her countrymen recognize her face.
Norma's fame is in her voice, a voice that makes "unemployment figures read like bittersweet laments, declarations of war like love letters." She is the star of the Lost City Radio show, a program intended to reunite listeners with lost loved ones. After a brutal decade of civil war, the number of vanished loved ones is legion.
Norma is not allowed to mention the war on air (and she needs to pay attention to any and all such prohibitions – her previous program director, who did not, has disappeared without a trace) but she is encouraged to massage the hope and longing of her listeners.
"Are you alone, or more alone, than you expected to be?" she coos. "Have you lost touch with those whom you expected to find...? This show, my friends, is for you."
Listeners call in from across the war-torn land, to talk "about their uncles, their cousins, their neighbors from that long-ago abandoned village; the way the earth smelled back home, the sound of the rain as it fell in bursts over the treetops, the lurid colors of the countryside in bloom."
Meanwhile, Norma's own life should be counted as one of the missing. She lives alone in an apartment with two dusty, dying houseplants. Her husband Rey, a botanist fascinated by plants with psychoactive properties, was also (unknown to her) a collaborator with the insurgency. He is one of the vanished.
One Tuesday morning Norma's solitude is broken by the arrival of Victor, a young boy who is "slender and fragile" with "eyes too small for his face." He has traveled to the capital from a remote village called 1797. (Since the war, the government has replaced all city names with numbers: odd numbers indicate a river or mountain nearby, and the higher the final digit the smaller the hamlet.)
The purpose of Victor's journey is to bring Norma a list of the names of those missing from his town. But as it happens, his town is the one Rey used to visit as he hunted for plants.