Remembering the 'disappeared'
Powerful debut novel explores themes of war and loss
Daniel Alarcón was just a toddler when his family emigrated from Lima, Peru, to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1980. It took his parents, both physicians, four years to finally decide that the growing insurrection by the communist Shining Path posed a greater threat to their family than did whatever cultural adjustments might await them in the United States. The family acclimated well, but news from back home grew increasingly disturbing, filled as it was with whispers of grim atrocities, unthinkable brutality on both sides, and the "disappeared" who were taken away, never to be seen again. One day, the war pierced the heart of the Alarcón family: Daniel's uncle Javier, a radical leftist who opposed the Shining Path, had disappeared. The family would eventually learn that he was killed in 1989.
"For us, the war did not become a real thing, isolated as we were in the suburbs of a quiet American city, until then," Alarcón recalls. "When that happened, it shook everything in my family."
His uncle's disappearance forms the emotional framework of Alarcón's debut novel, Lost City Radio, a somber, moving elegy to all souls similarly erased or displaced by war, poverty or ideology.
Set in a factional, fictional Latin American country, Lost City Radio takes its title from a radio program in the capital city hosted by Norma, whose beloved husband Rey disappeared 10 years earlier during the waning days of a brutal civil war. Norma's late-night voice soothes and comforts a post-traumatized nation as she reads the names of missing persons on the air, secretly hoping one day that she and Rey will be among the program's tearful reunions. Norma is careful never to mention the insurgent Illegitimate Legion or the war itself, all strictly forbidden by the repressive government. But when 11-year-old Victor arrives from village 1797 (the victorious regime replaced town names with numbers) carrying a list of the "disappeared," Norma notices among the names an alias once used by Rey.
So begins an epic quest as the unlikely duo journey back to Victor's village in search of answers to Rey's disappearance and his possible relationship to the young boy. Through flashbacks to the civil war, we learn about "the Moon," a concentration camp where the "disappeared" suffered unspeakable horrors. Rey's fate is slowly revealed and the list of the missing from village 1797 is eventually read as the author skillfully illuminates how the war has touched and implicated everyone from urban intellectuals to jungle dwellers.
Alarcón, who studied anthropology at Columbia, returned to his homeland in 2001 as a Fulbright Scholar in Peru, where much of the research for the novel was done.
"A radio show like that exists in Peru, and when I was living in Lima, I was a big fan of the show," he recalls from his home in Oakland, California, where he is a distinguished visiting writer at Mills College. "It's totally apolitical and it's saccharine, lots of string music, totally a sonic lullaby, but the actual premise is so fascinating and the reunions that were effected on the show were just harrowing. When I started doing research for the novel, I found that there are shows like this all over—in Nigeria, some parts of Russia, Pakistan."
Though he did not live in Peru during the Shining Path insurrection, which peaked in the early 1990s, the stories he collected while visiting various parts of the country a decade later are still unforgettable.
"I remember being in a restaurant in Ayacucho and the owner would come over to talk to us and end up telling us a story of an execution he'd seen," Alarcón recalls. "One family learned that I had studied anthropology and brought me a list of these people and said, You're an anthropologist. We need someone to help us dig up a grave. I was 23 years old."
Alarcón returned to the U.S. to earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writer's Workshop in 2003. His heralded short-story collection, War by Candlelight, was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway prize. The war in his native Peru figures in many of his stories; they are his way of coming to terms with how it changed his life, even from a distance. " One of the things that happens when you're an immigrant is, you create a vision of your country where all the food tastes good, everyone is friendly, the music is tender, and you forget what it is that was actually happening there and the reasons why you decided to leave," he says.
Alarcón chose to set Lost City Radio in a nonspecific Latin American nation to underscore how widespread the experience of war and terrorism has become in the region. Is there a lesson here for America?
"I think so," he says. "All our energy right now is focused on the Middle East and we're not thinking about Latin America, and I think that's a mistake. A lot of what's happening in Latin America right now is related to what's happening in the Middle East; the leftward swing, for example, is totally a rejection of American foreign policy in the other region. I would like Latin America not to get lost in the shuffle as we try to put out fires in various parts of the world, fires that in many cases we started."
With this novel, Alarcón has accomplished a sort of literary equivalent of Norma's radio program. Although cloaked in fiction, it acknowledges the fact of that brutal civil war and the importance of speaking out about what's happening, especially in times of fear and repression.
"For a long time, these things weren't talked about, these stories weren't told," he says. "The fact of the naming is therapeutic even. It's a book about widespread amnesia, deliberate amnesia, putting everything in a box and just forgetting about it. This book is about telling the stories that people didn't want to hear before, that were inconvenient to hear. The simple fact that they are being told represents some form of progress."
Jay MacDonald writes from Austin, Texas.