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."
"As I was reading the novel I found myself looking forward to encountering Zahir, an interesting and compelling character. Where did he come from?"
"I know what you're saying. I also grew to really feel a lot of affection for him. He's basically a pawn in a very large game and accepts his part in the grand tragedy. He has more honesty about it than Rey, who is more educated and has more access -- he's from the city and is not, like Zahir, a poor man in a poor isolated part of a poor country. I respected him.
"The war in Peru that took 70,000 lives doesn't happen without people like Zahir. He's not based on anyone in particular so much as he's based on an entire class of people. Perhaps his version of things has more integrity than a lot of others."
"Is the practice of tadek that you describe in the book based on something in reality, or is it from your imagination?"
"I was thinking a lot, at the time, about wartime justice. It happens in every state that deals with terrorism. The real solution to terrorism is intense police work -- critical, nuanced, diligent, tedious police work, you know. The kind of brutal, clumsy, repressive, awkward response where you say, 'Just throw them all in jail and we'll sort it out later,' is certainly something that happened in Peru. I wanted to throw out in the open how arbitrary wartime justice can be.
"I was reading a book about Haile Selassie, and it described a traditional Ethiopian system of justice that I ended up modeling tadek on. It's not something that existed in Peru. But, in the same way that this country that I describe in my book is not Peru, but an amalgamation of many countries and many situations and many wars, I drew freely from all kinds of sources.
"I specifically didn't want it to be Peru because I didn't want to be tied to the details of the war. I wasn't trying to write a history. There are so many ways that I think Peru is emblematic of a lot of things that are happening."
"When you talk to groups about Peru, or even in introducing the subject matter of your book, what can you count on Americans bringing to the table in terms of background knowledge about Peruvian culture, history, and politics?"
"There's a lot you have to fill in. I think only specialists know about the war and the political, economic, and racial background that led to the war. It's probably not even fair to ask your average American to keep all of the conflicts in the global south straight. People in the House Armed Services Committee can't even tell the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, you know.
"It's a lot to ask the average American to remember anything beyond the name, Shining Path, which is a wonderfully terrifying name that they came up with. I think Americans know about Machu Picchu and, in certain large cities, they know about ceviche and Peruvian cuisine, and that's the extent of it.
"When I talk about the war or try to place this novel in context, I try not to bring it down to a history lesson. I talk about a country divided by class, divided by race, divided by geography, where conflicts become ripe and become bloody on a generational cycle."
"Last week in the London Guardian you were identified as part of the 'literary renaissance' in Peru. What is happening there?"
"I think there's something happening, but I also think there is the realization that there's something happening. A lot of the commentary has revolved around the notion that Peruvians are finally starting to write about their war. That's not accurate.
"There have been writers dealing with the war for years. What is actually happening is that mainstream, middle-class writers from Lima are starting to write about the war. By the time the war got to Lima, it was so bad in the countryside. The inconvenience of a power outage was nothing at all compared to what was happening in the Andes. The Shining Path would come in and demand food and support, and if the people didn't give it to them, they'd kill them. Then the army would come in two days later and say, 'You supported Shining Path,' and they'd kill everyone that was left. The kind of literary trend that people are talking about is simply Lima finally realizing what the hell happened.
"On the other hand, there is more publication happening, which has to do with the relative stability of the Peruvian economy. There is more money left over for the arts. The magazine which I am so thrilled to be a part of, Etiqueta Negra, has not been a small player in this renaissance."
"Tell me about the magazine and how long it's been going."
"We are in our fifth year. We're trying to be the Harpers or The New Yorker of South America. We focus mainly on nonfiction. We commission three or four articles a month on different topics and translate writers that wouldn't otherwise be published in Latin America. A lot of the writers who have passed through our pages are part of the movement people are talking about."