Stepping into a brave new world

Times Staff Writer

In his new novel, “Lost City Radio,” young Peruvian-born writer Daniel Alarcon has created a world that seems to exist simultaneously in the future and the distant past. It’s a nameless war-torn country that bears some resemblance to the futuristic dystopias of “1984" and “Brave New World.” But television and the Internet don’t exist. People queue up to make long-distance calls. The nation is united not by film stars but by a faceless radio host who exerts a kind of religious power over the impoverished populace.

The novel’s world is both strangely familiar and disorienting. The memory of a guerrilla war lingers, maps are cut out of textbooks and burned, and peasants drift in from the jungle to cities known only by numbers.

“And another thing,” said Alarcon, who at 29 is almost slight and poised enough to be mistaken for a teenage skateboard champion. “This is South America, but there’s not a word of Spanish in the whole book.”

However shifting its time or place, “Lost City Radio,” which arrives in bookstores this week, marks a much-awaited novelistic debut. Alarcon is the author of a 2005 story collection, “War by Candlelight,” which drew high praise for the originality of its voice and vision. Even before his first story appeared in the New Yorker’s 2003 fiction issue, “it was clear that he already had a talent for vivid, cinematic and surreal imagery,” said the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. She was also struck by the “universal, almost mythic feel” of his people and places.

But if his arrival made noise in literary circles, the novel could catapult him much further.


Jonathan Burnham, publisher of HarperCollins, was struck by the new book’s formal assurance and moral seriousness. “I was blown away by the emotional maturity with which he writes about war. Younger writers often try to be flamboyant or obviously complicated, but he’s content to take a story and push deeply into it.” The novel’s sense of almost dreamlike temporal confusion may call to mind fellow Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa -- Alarcon cites him as an influence -- but it’s also strikingly contemporary. Alarcon writes as a creature of the globalizing present, able to inhabit, and view from a distance, several cultures at once.

Globalization, Alarcon said over lunch at a restaurant a few miles from Mills College, where he’s a visiting faculty member, makes it easy to feel comfortable, if not quite home, everywhere. “My circle of friends in Oakland and my circle of friends in Lima [Peru] and my circle of friends in New York are really not that different.

“The language they speak is different, but we do the same things. We write, read a lot, nurse drinking problems -- typical bohemians. In Oakland we speak in English, in Lima in Spanish. We listen to the same music, have the same references -- there are certain clubs in Lima where they only play the Cure and the Smiths.”

Alarcon moved with his parents, both physicians, from Lima to Birmingham, Ala., when he was 3. He has neither a Latin American nor a Southern accent -- the result, he said, of a father who worshiped NPR and instructed his family to emulate its measured tones. He writes in English because of what he calls “an accident of migration.”

He majored in anthropology at Columbia University, where he submitted stories to literary journals, and after a few years of teaching and counseling in New York and making trips, including on the Fulbright Program, to Latin America, he enrolled in the University of Iowa’s prestigious writing program.

Though the novel’s world is abstract, much of it was drawn from Alarcon’s life and the struggles of his native Peru.

The book’s main character is Norma, a troubled woman who has lost her radical husband to the insurgency but whose “Lost City Radio” unites displaced people from the provinces.

“There’s a real radio show in Lima, called ‘Busca Personas,’ -- People Finders,” Alarcon said. “The show itself is frankly a little schmaltzy, a little treacly. They pretty much set up a reunion every week. But every now and then, behind the curtain, there were incredible stories hinted at.”

The author’s family left Peru for reasons unrelated to the country’s instability, and it took a while for the turbulence to register. “I think until about 1989 we were able to persist in the illusion that things were better than they were. We were far away.”

Not so for some of the family back in Peru. “My father’s brother was very political, very involved in the radical left. In 1989, he disappeared. I was 11 or 12 years old. The circumstances of that disappearance became my father’s obsession, and then mine.”

When Alarcon graduated from college in 1999, he returned to Peru, interviewing scores of people -- veteran radicals, politicians, farmers -- who knew his uncle or Latin American politics. However grim the circumstances, the experience seems to have attuned him to an extraordinary number of voices and points of view.

Rey, Norma’s long-lost husband, is loosely based on Alarcon’s uncle, as is the main character in the story “War by Candlelight.” Both are “versions of his story. Of people like him who were seduced by an idea.

“War doesn’t exist without active and passive players. What interested me about Rey was his ability to be a participant but to think of himself as an observer, an innocent.”

In other ways, Alarcon has aimed to make the book as universal as possible. He talks about his fondness for the movie “Amores Perros,” which he says could take place in almost any Latin American city. “You get a sense traveling that a lot of the things shaping a city like Lima are happening all over,” he said. “And a lot of the wars that are happening are facsimiles of wars that have already happened. The process of recovery from a war is sort of universal: Either you delve into it and have a cathartic experience or, more likely, you do everything you can to forget.”

It’s deliberate, he said, that the constant state of war in “Lost City Radio” in its nameless high-security state echoes more than only Peruvian history.

“The war on terror that has been much publicized here is not anything new in a lot of parts of the world. In the U.K. and Ireland, they know all about it; in Latin America they know all about it. This is not new. And the way societies adapt to this kind of fear is not new.”

Alarcon has always written in English, and he sees no contradiction in being a Latin American and an American writer. He recalls an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez years ago in which the author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” called Faulkner a Latin American writer. And although he admires the lion of magic realism, he’s frustrated that most Americans know little else about literature from South America. “I feel like for the majority of books by Latin American authors, the go-to move is to put a ... butterfly on the cover, and a palm tree....

“Magic realism came out of a time when Latin America was still primarily a rural culture, storytelling was much more oral. The contemporary moment is completely different: The majority of Latin Americans live in cities, have a very complicated and fraught relationship to global culture, to the U.S., to the Internet, to Europe....

“It’s unfortunate that American taste for Latin America hasn’t caught up to the reality of a totally changed continent. I think most young Latin American writers would agree with me.”

His debt to that generation of Latin authors, though, remains strong. The novel’s almost corkscrewing sense of time comes in part from Vargas Llosa’s “Conversation in the Cathedral,” in part from “hard-boiled cats” like Dashiell Hammett. He’s proud to be part of the Peruvian tradition and looks forward to translating work of his native land, but he’s also proud of his global interests.

He was hit hardest and earliest by Russian writers -- especially the Dostoevsky of “Notes From Underground” -- and recently he’s felt strong sympathy with Polish scribes for “their dark sense of humor and their fatalism.”

He’s especially fond of novelist Bruno Schulz and Ryszard Kapuscinski, the journalist and author who died last month.

“There’s an old saying that the winners write the history and the losers write the literature. And Poland strikes me as a nation of losers in the best sense of the word. In the same sense that Peru is: Peru is not the champion of anything. But we’ve got great writers because we aren’t.”