Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón. Harper Collins, 2007, 272 pages, $24.95
ABOUT THE BOOK:
A nameless, timeless South American country slowly emerges from a war everyone would prefer to forget. For ten years, Norma has been the voice of consolation for a people broken by violence, while hiding her own personal loss: her husband disappeared at the end of the war. Norma's radio program is the most popular in the country, and every week the Indians in the mountains and poor of the barrios listen as she reads the names of those who have gone missing, those whom the furiously expanding city has swallowed. Loved ones are reunited, and the lost are found. But the life she has become accustomed to is forever changed when a young boy arrives from the jungle and provides a clue to the fate of her long-missing husband.
WHAT THE REVIEWERS SAY:
Kirkus Review : "A jarring and deeply imagined novel that feels at once anonymous and very familiar.... Alarcón has mapped a whole nation and given its war-torn history real depth -- an impressive feat."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Daniel Alarcón's 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. He is Associate Editor of Etiqueta Negra , an award-winning monthly magazine based in his native Lima, Peru. A former Fulbright Scholar to Peru and the recipient of a Whiting Award for 2004, he lives in Oakland, California, where he is the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College. His story collection, War by Candlelight: Stories (P.S.), was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
When I spoke with Daniel Alarcón in Oakland, he had just returned from the East Coast where he had assisted in editing an issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. His voice was a bit raspy from an evening of karaoke with friends prior to coming home.
"I understand you were born in Lima, but you grew up in the States. How did that happen?"
"My parents are physicians. They came originally to the United States to Johns Hopkins. Both of my sisters were born during the five or six years they were in Baltimore, then they went back to Peru from '73 to '80. I was born there.
"One of my dad's classmates ended up in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places. For four years he bugged my dad to come and we finally decided to move there when I was three years old. So, my first real memories are of Birmingham.
"We were fortunate enough to be able to travel back to Peru every other year. To my chagrin, I even had to go to school in Peru when we visited. Summer in the States is winter down there. I was one of the pioneers of year-round schooling."
"Were you there during the time of the Shining Path?"
"Yes. I remember doing homework with my cousin by candlelight and making jokes about the next blackout and not really knowing what the hell it was about. It was like being away at summer camp. I knew too little to be scared.
"There's something that happens with societies in the midst of conflict. There's obviously a lot of trauma, but there's also a lot of really dark black humor. It was my summer camp. The grades didn't matter. I was the star of the English class. I played soccer a lot and I tried to stay out of trouble.
"In terms of knowing what was going on, I certainly didn't until much later when I became a student of the conflict and tried to understand how these things had happened in Peru."
"Where did the idea for this book begin and how did it develop?"
"If I didn't know how bad the war was, I think that my parents didn't either. I think there's something that happens with immigrants. If you're in the United States and things are going very well for you, there's a certain kind of nostalgia that colors everything. You remember about your country the kindness of your family, the food and the music, and the places where you used to walk. The bad news that you get somehow doesn't filter in.
"In 1989, my father's brother, who was a union leader and allied with the radical left, disappeared. That's the point at which whatever illusions my family might have had about what was happening in Peru ended. My father went back to Lima, and it became a family obsession -- first his obsession and then mine. In 1999, when I went back, I started asking around to try to figure out who knew what became of him.
"The novel is not a factual re-creation of his story at all. In spirit, what I wanted to write was about his generation. They were people seduced by an idea who made compromises with themselves. They allowed themselves to participate in something and to tell themselves that they actually weren't.
"There's a dishonesty to the character Rey that is tragic to me. It's self-deceit. He allowed himself to participate in a violent struggle for power, but he pretends that it isn't -- that it's a game or something.
"In the case of my family, what I found was that a lot of people were still being very dishonest about what had happened and why it had happened. At that point, I was still young enough to be outraged. I look at it a little differently now. Especially when politics are involved, people of all stripes can justify a lot of dishonesty for ideological or tactical reasons. The unfortunate thing, of course, is that there are other people in the middle of that."
"Were you ever able to find out what happened to your uncle?"
"Yes, I found out. It's not dissimilar to Rey's trajectory in the book, in a way. The facts are different. I dedicated the novel to him, because his disappearance was a huge turning point in my life. There was a relationship that I had with Peru before my uncle Javier disappeared and a relationship that I had after."