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In 'Lost City Radio,' faint signals from a country's lost heart

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The novel's action glides from city to village, from present to past, and from one narrator to another. Norma relives her story with Rey; Rey recollects both his travels in the jungle and the torture he underwent as punishment by the government; and other voices fill in events in Victor's village.

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Meanwhile, all around these characters swirls the subdued, truncated life of this country, marked most strikingly by what it has lost. In the city, "There were soldiers on every other corner.... Pedestrians moved chaotically between the featureless, modern buildings, beneath a clouded sky that threatened to clear. Taxis honked, vendors shouted, police whistles squealed."

There are those who recall, however, that once, "There were parks of olive trees and lemon trees planted in rows, flower beds bursting with flowers of alarming colors, shady places for napping on a spread blanket, places where couples might stroll, hand in hand, and discuss in whispers all manner of personal things. This, too, the war would bring to an end."

Distant from the city is "the undulating countryside, the sharp teeth of the gray mountains, the scandalously blue sky." There, a handful of people still speak the local dialect, a language with two words for we – one that includes you and another that does not. "Barely anyone spoke that language anymore – a few of the ancient women of the village, and no one else." The we that includes you is close to extinction, thanks to the war.Yet one of the striking things about "Lost City Radio" is its apolitical nature. Rey was an informer for the IL (Illegitimate Legion) and he also worked for the government. He and his uncle (also a servant of both sides) agree that it's strange "to be tortured by the state, and then employed by it, all in a matter of months." However, they conclude, "The government after all, was a blind machine...." Norma too is a political enigma – a woman who accepts her job without seeming to question the implications of cooperating with those who have destroyed her happiness.

No one, in fact, seems even to understand what the war was about. How did it start, some villagers ask Rey. "He forgot now. Someone was angry about something. This someone convinced many hundreds and then many thousands more that their collective anger meant something. That had to be acted on." There is no response from Rey when a villager queries, "Tell us sir, who was right in all of this?"

There are no right or wrong sides in this tale. There is only the folly of human beings, a willingness on the part of too many to replace real feeling with meaningless action, not un like the impostors who call in to Norma's show, desperate to be falsely accepted as either the missed or the missing. In other words, the terrain under examination here is that of the human heart – the realm of literature and not that of politics.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe

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