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Lost City Radio Paperback – February 5, 2008
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Top Customer Reviews
LOST CITY RADIO is set in an unnamed South American country a decade after the government has crushed the 10-year-long rebellion of a group of insurgents dubbed the "Illegitimate Legion." The war's inciting grievance, if there was one, was soon forgotten and yet the battles raged on, devastating urban neighborhoods and depopulating the towns and villages that dot the countryside. Rey, one of the novel's main characters, muses that the war "would have happened anyway. It was unavoidable. It's a way of life in a country like ours."
Rey is an "ethobotanist committed to the preservation of disappearing plant species." Near the end of the conflict he vanishes in the vicinity of a jungle village renamed "1797," as part of a government program to eradicate vestiges of local history by replacing traditional place names with numbers. Each Sunday night his widow, Norma, hosts a wildly popular program entitled "Lost City Radio" on the government-owned radio station during which she fields calls from people looking for missing family members, many of them victims of the political violence and others simply erased from the lives of their loved ones by the country's advancing urbanization. Her voice, "gold that stank of empathy," in the words of her station manager Elmer, snakes out over the city and the program sometimes results in reunions that become occasions for popular celebrations. In all the years she's hosted the show, Norma has never abandoned hope that someday it will serve as the vehicle for a reunion with Rey.
Norma's life as the "mother to an imaginary nation of missing people" is disrupted irretrievably when a young boy named Victor, a refugee from 1797 whose mother recently has drowned, appears at the station clutching a list of the disappeared compiled by his fellow villagers. Even more unsettling to Norma than the fact that Victor comes from the remote village where Rey was last seen is the appearance on the list of an assumed name under which her late husband carried out clandestine political activities. Despite a seemingly happy marriage to Rey, Norma knew little of these activities and even less of what her husband did on his frequent trips, ostensibly for scientific research, into the jungle.
Slowly and seductively, Alarcón peels away the layers of Rey's double life. The night he and Norma meet he's imprisoned and tortured at a prison called the "Moon." A year later, they reunite and soon are married. Eventually, Rey is recruited by a man in a rumpled suit to act as a secret courier, but the novel hints at a much deeper involvement in terrorist activities, something that creates an unbridgeable distance between him and Norma.
Childless herself, Norma becomes by default Victor's parent. Elijah Manau, Victor's teacher and his mother's lover, who accompanies the boy to the city and initially abandons him, rejoins Norma and Victor and the three unite in an odyssey across the urban landscape. Norma learns a secret about Rey even more stunning than any revelation of his political activities.
Like radio dial flickering between distant stations, LOST CITY RADIO moves seamlessly from Norma's life in the postwar capital city, to her relationship with Rey, and on to glimpses of life in 1797, separated from the capital not merely by distance, but by a vast cultural gulf. Though the scenes it depicts give the novel a distinctly Latin American atmosphere, Alarcon himself, in a 2005 interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, acknowledged, "if I were Pakistani or Kenyan, I could probably be writing a similar novel." He's acutely aware of the novel's universal themes: "What does a car bomb say about poverty," he writes, "or the execution of a rural mayor explain about disenfranchisement?"
Alarcón's prose is elliptical and dreamlike, aptly suited to the mysterious spell he weaves in LOST CITY RADIO. It's a novel that whispers, rather than shouts, for our attention, and it's all the more powerful and moving for that fact.
--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg ([...])
Sendero Luminoso's often times bizarre campaign to bring down the Peruvian State has been well documented in a number of non-fiction books. It is fairly easy to chronicle the War's story of terrorist bombings, blackouts, army massacres and political assasinations. However, there is another human truth of that conflict that requires the skill and insight of the novelist. I lived in Peru during the mid 1980's and experienced many of the events that are thinly veiled in this story. Through the medium of the novel, Alarcon has been able to successfully recreate the atmosphere and tension that existed at the time. This novel beautifully captures the devestation that survives the end of a long and dirty war.
Finally, it is a sweet oddity of globalization that one of the emerging voices of Latin American literature is a child of the suburbs of Alabama. "Lost City Radio" is an impressive debut novel and is highly recommended.