“Lost City Radio”
Daniel Alarcón (right) signs a copy of his new book
for an audience member after his reading.
audio archive of this event
a podcast (.mp3) of this event (right click to download)
beginning his reading of Lost City Radio,
author Daniel Alarcón offers a disclaimer, “I
didn’t set this novel in Peru. I set this novel in an
unnamed Latin American country, in an unnamed Latin American
city.” Seconds later, as Alarcón is framing the
excerpt he is about to read, he says, “This is about
the night the war finally became real in Lima.” Then
he pauses and corrects himself, “Not in Lima , in this
made-up, fictional city.” Standing before the Peruvian
Consul General, Alarcón, winks, “Nothing like
this ever happened in Peru.”
Alarcón’s first novel,
chronicles two days in the life of Norma, a news announcer
for a national radio program. With thousands missing due to
civil war and economic dislocation, Norma’s radio program
provides a forum for callers hoping to reconnect with their
lost family members, lovers and friends. Ten years prior, Norma’s
own husband Rey disappeared during the waning days of the war
in a village on the outskirts of the jungle.
narrative begins when Victor, an 11-year-old boy from the
jungle village where Norma’s husband disappeared,
arrives at the station with a list of the village’s missing.
When Norma recognizes her husband’s nom-de-guerre, she
is forced to come to terms with her life, her husband’s
secrets and Victor’s mysterious origins — in short, “how
that name ended up on that list.” These recollections
are told in a series of flashbacks that recreate, in unflinching
and unflattering detail, the lives of Norma, Rey and Victor.
his disclaimer, Alarcón readily admits that
Peru is the template from which derives his lost city and unnamed
country. Like the fictional country, Peru is culturally and
geographically divided among poor sierra towns, frontier jungle
villages and a sprawling coastal metropolis which absorbs internal
migrants from those poorer regions. Like the fictional country,
Peru was devastated by a violent guerilla insurgency which
sought to remake a corrupt state through a bloody civil war.
And, in both cases, when the corrupt state proved victorious,
it was ruled by an authoritarian dictator who sought to recast
history through an iron-fisted control of the media and political
process. The novel evocatively describes the crowded buses,
dusty shantytowns and politicized universities that would be
familiar to any resident of Lima .
premise for the novel’s call-in radio show even
came from a Peruvian program, “Busca Personas” (“In
Search of People”), which functioned as a radio bulletin
board for the country’s internally displaced and the
people who missed them. Listening to the program, Alarcón
heard a Lima characterized by displacement and dislocation,
a place “of disintegrating cultural traditions, of people
kind of being swallowed up by the city and unable to maintain
their ties to the places they used to call home and the people
that were their loved ones.” In the novel, Norma attempts
a delicate balancing act as she publicly assists citizens unwilling
to forget their past in a nation defined by a state-led policy
of erasing history.
much Alarcón draws upon Lima as a prototype
for his lost city, he adamantly defends fiction as his preferred
medium. Although he first drafted the story as a work of nonfiction,
he felt constrained by sticking with the particulars. Alarcón
refers to Mario Vargas Llosa’s concept of “la
verdad de las mentiras” (“the truth of lies”),
to explain how fiction can be a more persuasive, richer means
of expressing a true sentiment or situation than mere facts.
Alarcón, who was recently awarded a Guggenheim
Fellowship for Fiction, reads from Lost City Radio on
also seems to have chosen fiction and an anonymous setting
to deliberately collectivize the experience of displacement,
memory and anger. He began the reading with the mention of
a February 2007 New York Times article recounting how a woman
from rural Thailand got on the wrong bus, became lost in a
city over 750 miles from her hometown and wasn’t reunited
with her family until a homeless shelter volunteer thought
to attempt speaking with her in Yawi, her indigenous language — 25
years later. In Lost City Radio, languages, places
and rural customs are unnamed, numbered or given foreign-sounding
but deliberately ambiguous titles.
perhaps most alarming is Alarcón’s universalizing
description of prison and detention policies in a counter-insurgency
war. As a university student, Rey spends months in prison for
the crime of traveling on a city bus without his identity papers.
While at a detention facility known as “the Moon,” he
is forced to bury himself alive. His guards urinate on him.
He is abandoned in unsanitary, overcrowded cells. He also meets
the contacts who will one day draw him into the guerilla insurgency.
It is several years, however, before Rey is driven to join
the rebels. His breaking point comes when his uncle Trini is
killed while being detained on trumped-up charges. A few months
later, Rey undertakes his first operation as a member of the
Illegitimate Legion. From then on, he creates a dual life:
as a botany professor and devoted husband in the city and an
Illegitimate Legion guerilla in the provinces.
this background of fear and uncertainty, “everyone
comes off poorly.” Norma, Rey and the supporting characters
choose paths that reveal their greatest weaknesses: selfishness,
denial, egotism, lust and ambition. Although many willingly
pay a penance, often their efforts are too little, too late.
Alarcón’s Lost City Radio is not merely
about Peru . It is not just a Latin American novel. Rather,
it is a chronicle of moral failure and the struggle for redemption
in a society traumatized by dislocation, violence and fear.
Guggenheim Fellow Daniel Alarcón is the author
of Lost City Radio and War by Candlelight and
the editor of Etiqueta Negra, a Peruvian culture
magazine. He read selections from Lost City Radio in
an event sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies
on April 16, 2007 .
Meredith Perry is a graduate student in the Latin American
in a nameless, timeless South American country slowly
emerging from a long civil war, Daniel Alarcón’s
first novel, Lost City Radio probes the deepest
questions of war: from its devastating impact on society
to the emotional scarring each participant, observer and
survivor carries with them for years. Mr. Alarcón
will give a short reading from his novel and talk about
the genesis of the project.
Alarcón was named a Guggenheim Fellow for Fiction
on April 6, 2007, and his story collection War by Candlelight was
a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award. He is Associate
Editor of Etiqueta Negra, an award-winning arts and culture
magazine published in his native Lima, Peru. His first novel, Lost
City Radio, was published in February 2007.
chapter of Lost City Radio (from the New York