Monday, April 16, 2007

Book Review: Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón

John Freeman reviews Daniel Alarcón's Lost City Radio.

"One man's freedom fighter," Nelson Mandela famously argued, "is another's man's terrorist." In his debut novel, Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon reminds that one man's freedom fighter is probably another woman's husband, another boy's father, certainly another man's son.

Set in a fictional Latin American republic, Lost City Radio depicts the trauma inflicted upon a society when these fighters — be they vigilantes or soldiers on the side of the government — simply disappear.

The book takes its title from a popular radio show in what Alarcón describes as the nation's "provincial capital." Each Sunday, the station broadcasts the names of the disappeared. "The idea was simple. How many refugees had come to the city? How many of them had lost touch with their families? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?"

The voice connecting the lost with the found belongs to Norma, a brave, beautiful and damaged journalist whom Alarcón brings vividly to life. Her husband, Rey, has been missing for more than a decade.

A decade later, Norma still sleeps alone, facing the door to her bedroom, as if Rey might still come home in the night.

Lost City Radio then cycles backward to tell the story of the country's war, the way it fractured the committed from the fearful, the urban from the rural and the collaborators from the resisters.

Based on Alarcón's descriptions, the country might be Argentina or Chile or the author's native Peru — all countries racked by civil wars and state-sponsored disappearances.

But the observations this book makes aren't limited to Latin America, especially when it comes to the siren call of violence: "Before the war began, those of Norma's generation still spoke of violence with awe and reverence," Alarcón writes: "cleansing violence, purifying violence, violence that would spawn virtue."

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