Monday, January 29, 2007

Book Review: Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón

Two reviews of Daniel Alarcón's Lost City Radio.

Although Lost City Radio is Daniel Alarcón's first novel, his previous short stories hold a novel-like attachment to one protagonist: the city of Lima. In the young Peruvian American author's 2005 collection, War by Candlelight, Lima wasn't just a staging ground for the rotating casts of characters; the city emerged as the book's subject.

Alarcón's brief oeuvre has been rooted in the deep textures of place: In the fittingly titled short story "Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979," every page finds a new avatar, from the "roadside mechanics . . . stained oily black from head to toe . . . the fiercest angels, the city's living dead" to a man in an "ill-fitting suit" selling Chiclets on a crosstown bus. So it's significant to a nearly heavy-handed degree that Lost City Radio never offers the name of the South American nation where it occurs. The country's towns don't even have names: In the aftermath of a long war, the government has replaced the quirky local tags—"unwieldy, millenarian name[s] from God-knows-which extinct people"—with Orwellian numbers: 1797, 1791, 1793.

The war—as vaguely defined as the country it tears up—is the central event in Alarcón's novel. In the present, where we begin, the conflict officially ended a decade before, but the war's legacy still composes both the professional and personal world of our main character. Norma is a honey-voiced DJ with a popular weekly show, Lost City Radio, in which citizens appear on-air to describe loved ones lost in the massive upheaval. Inevitably, she's patient as well as doctor; her own husband, Rey, an ethnobotanist with a passion for fungi and, just maybe, violent revolution, went missing in the war's final period, and she longs to turn her studio into a personal pulpit.
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Daniel Alarcón's thoughtful, engaging first novel is set in a fictitious South American country where the reader will immediately recognize fragments of recent history in Argentina, Chile and, most particularly, Alarcón's native country, Peru. No name is ever given to the country: Alarcón means the novel to be a fable about civil wars and their repercussions, rather than an account of a specific war within a specific place to which we bring all the baggage of familiarity.

With the publication of Lost City Radio, Alarcón is off and running. His collection of short stories, War by Candlelight, was published two years ago to deservedly high praise. Now still in his late 20s, Alarcón has an impressive and rather unusual background. He was brought to this country when he was very young because of the dreadful violence that swept through Peru in the 1980s and '90s during the terrorist uprisings led by the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru movements. In recent years, he has spent a lot of time in one of the poorest barrios of Lima, and much of his fiction is about the people who live there.
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1 comment:

  1. My interview of Daniel Alarcon appeared this week on The Elegant Variation: