“Lost City Radio” by Daniel Alarcón

Reviewed by DW Gibson

Image of “Lost City Radio” by Daniel Alarcón

As the title might imply, the setting for this engaging first novel is never clearly defined. We are told of a chaotic South American city, nameless villages stashed away in an untamed jungle, and an anonymous war that has wrecked this unidentified country. Additional details, however, are left murky and for this most readers will be grateful. While one could pine for a more flushed out imaginary world - this book could have easily taken the shape of a fat epic - most will embrace the allegorical form that Alarcón employs. A parable, after all, allows us to transfer a story to our own circumstances.

Indeed, there turn out to be plenty of place holders in Lost City Radio for the reader to recognize: tragic romance, suspicions of betrayal, an overbearing Orwellian government. And there are some established facts, singular to this story. There is Norma, a radio personality whose daily show lists the names of countryside refugees who've gone missing in the long conflict that has ravaged her country. And there is Victor, an eleven-year old orphan who has journeyed from the countryside to the city carrying his own list of local villagers who have disappeared during the fighting.

Norma's efforts to locate the disappeared bare personal investment: her husband, Rey, a freedom fighter, is missing and presumed dead. When Victor shows up at Norma's radio station, the two try to identify and cope with the losses they've respectively incurred. As one might anticipate, Norma and Victor's stories overlap in intriguing ways. But somehow this book isn't about Norma or Victor or Rey, and herein we find Alarcón's mastery. While the story unfolds skillfully enough -- with exciting twists, and nicely-pitched dialog to reach a wide readership - the plot, per se, is not what this book is about.

Alarcón has the vision to look past the story he's dreamed up to ask larger questions about the apparatus of war itself. Somehow he manages to convey two dulling facts: every armed conflict is utterly complicated yet there is something so very terribly redundant about war. "Wasn't there always someone trying to start a war in this country?" asks one of his characters, with a hint of both comedy and tragedy, especially given his own unnamed location. Clearly Alarcón is trying to communicate beyond the Dirty Wars or the Contras - far beyond Latin America. Perhaps this is what makes this book so very worthwhile for American readers. While this country has not endured sustained combat on its own soil for quite some time, we've certainly propelled ourselves into various conflicts around the world, dipping into the infinite complexities and terrible redundancies that Alarcón so aptly realizes in his novel.

Alarcón has arranged familiar pieces on the board -- where battle plans, or say, book plots, are organized -- and then tossed the whole thing in the air so that he can pick each recognizable component up at will and present it in his own good time. At various points Alarcón allows his characters to question the origin of the conflict: "The war had long ago ceased to be a conflict between distinct antagonists "Had it begun with a voided election? Or the murder of a popular senator? Who could remember now?" Alarcón demonstrates superb resistance to any semblance of linear progression. His recognizable characters and their recognizable situations reveal themselves to us with an order that is all their own, each evolving from one chapter to the next.

Toward the end of the book, there is one last effort to remember the genesis of the conflict: "Which grievance was it and when?...It had officially begun ten years ago "Nearly a decade. How? He forgot now. Someone was angry about something. This someone convinced many hundreds and then many thousands more that their collective anger meant something. That it had to be acted upon. There was an event, wasn't there?...The war, he decided, would have happened anyway. It was unavoidable. It's a way of life in a country like ours." Indeed, and it is important for American readers to realize that this has been a way of life in a country like theirs, whoever they might be. Our immediate task is to take the time to discover their story. Alarcón sets us off in the right direction.

DW Gibson serves as Executive Director for the Ledig House International Writers Residency Program. He is currently working on a novel.