Daniel Alarcón was born 1977 in Lima, Peru. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, earned a BA in anthropology from Columbia University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His collection of short fiction, War by Candlelight, was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award and last year he was designated One of the “21 Young American Novelists” under 35″ to watch by Granta magazine, one of 37 under 36 selected by the Smithsonian Magazine in 2007 as Young American Innovators in the Arts and Sciences, one of 39 under 39 Latino American Novelists by the Hay Festival, Bogota, Colombia, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship. A lot of expectations on the writer who lives in Oakland, CA and teaches at Mills College there.
Lost City Radio (2007) is his first novel. It is set in an unnamed South American country more like Peru than any other country (with a capital on the coast and recent history of a long Maoist rebellion inland). “Disappearances” of those suspected of opposition to the national regime in Chile and Argentina and El Salvador have been more publicized than in Peru, where presidents have been elected and not overthrown by juntas of generals. In the country in which the Sunday night radio program “Lost City Radio” is listened to by a huge audience, no distinction is made between the leftist and rightist governments battling the guerillas called by the government the “Illegitimate Legion.”
Like the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the IL guerillas swept into remote villages, slaying priests and government officials, and eventually made attacks in the capital (I was in a blackout causes by a bomb at a power plant in Lima in 1985.) The omniscient narrator (who becomes more and more intrusive over the too-long course of the book) suggests that the Illegitimate Legion is a figment of the regime’s imagination, though there are rebel camps at raids, not just government roundup, torture, and disappearance of those suspected of dissidence.
(Like al-Quaida, there were Sendero Luminoso groups acting on their own, and many suspected of involvement were probably not involved, but there was an organization, and since the 1992 capture of Abimael Guzmán Reynoso (who is incarcerated at the Callao naval base in Lima, along with Vladimiro Montesinos, the former head of the National Intelligence Service under President Alberto Fujimori) the attacks largely ended. (More than 400 prisoners sentenced by military tribunals have been retried by civilian courts and freed. I think “it doesn’t exist” is analytically distinct from “Many who are accused had no connections with terrorism/a rebel organization.” Threats get exaggerated–for instance the imminent danger of the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein supposedly had, or the “missile gap” between the US and the USSR, ca. 1960 – but I don’t see denial of any threat at all as the antidote, and don’t see any reason for Alarcón to suggest the Sendero Luminoso didn’t exist, even in its fictionalized IL form, since there were guerrilla bases and actions in the fictional country.)
The soothing voice of “Lost City Radio,” each week reading names of persons whose relatives are trying to find them is Norma. Her own husband, Rey, was snatched by security forces in Lima, tortured at a facility everyone refers to as “the Moon,” released, and as an ethnobiologist made recurrent trips into the jungle.
At the start of the novel a boy named Victor from near what is now designated village 1797, where Rey’s research base was and from where he disappeared about ten years before, is taken by his teacher, Manau, to the capital and left at the radio station. Norma has no aptitude for mothering, but takes Victor in, and when the station manager reads the list Victor is carrying, finds Rey’s name on the list.
The names read on the air are not of those thought to have been “disappeared” by government forces but those separated in the tumult and the flight of young seeking work in the capital.
The novel proceeds with many flashbacks of the time of the dirty war for Norma, Ray, Manau, and, to a lesser extent, Victor, and Zahir the father of Victor’s best friend. Zahir’s hands were lopped off in an IL appropriation of something like a aboriginal witch-identification procedure. And Victor’s mother, Adele, drowned. Among other things, Victor is hoping to find her body where the river flows into the sea.
I’m not sure which early Mario Vargas Llosa novel it was (I think Conversation in the Cathedral) alternated narratives from sentence to sentence (Vargas’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter switched back and forth between chapters). Alarcón switches narratives between sections in the first two-thirds or three-quarters of the book. In the last part jump cuts occur within sections, even within paragraphs, though not arbitrarily switching with each sentence.
The flood of the past is disorienting for the reader. The flood waters for each of the main characters seem to rise in synch to tie the histories of the five characters together. Contrived? Sí, but powerful, nonetheless.
(In the back matter in the volume, Alarcón talks about a relative who was disappeared from a party in Peru, after Alarcón’s parents had relocated to the US. He also states his belief that “there are certain things that only fiction can accomplish, When a story is particularized, when it is no longer abstract, when the victims have names and complex pasts and obscure motives, and when the perpetrator do as well -then it becomes more true. it becomes something we can process-whereas I’ve always felt that the grand sweep of history strains our ability to empathize.” While I agree with him that “the stories we tell” are important, in my view his blurring of the Peruvian location and inventions are more “abstract” and contrived (arbitrary) than the stories survivors of the Latin American dirty wars tell. Alarcón is a talented writer, and I’d urge those interested in rebellions, state and anti-state terrorism to read the novel and decide for themselves.)
Also see my review of Alarcón’s second novel At Night We Walk in Circles (2013).