WAR, according to Daniel Alarcon, is a battle for language. The anonymous South American country where his remarkable first novel, “Lost City Radio,” takes place is ostensibly at peace after years of violent civil uprising. The bombed-out plazas of the capital have been rebuilt; still, minefields remain, especially in conversation. Places, for instance, are now known by numbers. To refer to a town by its old name is forbidden, and to mention the name of a person who’s been declared a traitor by the authorities invites immediate arrest. Thanks to Alarcon’s power as a storyteller, though, these strictures very quickly seem ordinary.
As the novel opens, an 11-year-old boy has arrived from the distant jungle. The boy’s village, 1797, has sent him with a list of its missing residents to deliver to Norma, host of a show called “Lost City Radio.” The list itself is not the problem: Missing people are the program’s stock in trade. In the decade since the war, millions of the displaced and economically deprived have fled to the capital’s ever-expanding shantytowns, where it doesn’t take a government edict for people to vanish. Norma invites listeners to call in about their lost relatives. When someone hears his or her name and contacts the studio, a reunion is staged, full of tears and sound bites. Of course, because the show is broadcast by the single, state-owned radio station, the names submitted are carefully vetted and the callers subjected to a multi-second delay.
Norma is the show’s secret weapon. As Alarcon writes, “She was a natural: she knew when to let her voice waver, when to linger on a word, what texts to tear through ... as if the words themselves were on fire.” She’s become a national heroine -- something between a female Walter Cronkite and a pop star. But if an empathetic tone takes the sting out of memory, it doesn’t erase it, as Alarcon’s novel soon makes clear.
At first, it’s the boy’s predicament that seems to touch Norma. His mother has recently drowned, and the teacher who accompanied him to the capital has abandoned him. But the announcer is subject to conflicts of interest. Her husband, Rey, a professor of ethnobotany, used to do research near 1797. He disappeared 10 years ago on a routine collecting trip. All Norma’s managed to learn is that this plant lover, who claimed to have forsworn politics, has since been accused of impossible outrages like inventing tire burning, a particularly gruesome method of torture.
According to Norma’s best-case scenario, Rey is hiding out in the jungle. She has imagined that her voice will someday reach him. Can the messenger from 1797 be a response? The boy, Victor -- whom she takes in -- and his teacher, Manau -- whom she hunts down with her reporter’s skills -- become allies as well as pieces in a puzzle that encompasses not only Rey’s whereabouts but also the ease with which our most private thoughts bend to the dictatorship of nouns and the seductions of cadence.
Born in Peru but raised in the United States, Alarcon grew up speaking Spanish, although he writes in English. This may explain his fascination with the different nuances available to voice and pen. Certainly, he appreciates radio’s continuing importance in places where literacy and electricity remain spotty. His view of revolution and its economic aftermath is both bird’s-eye and personal. Many of his relatives remain in Lima, and his family traveled there regularly. As an adult, he returned on a Fulbright fellowship to work in its barrios. He understands that the First World’s interest in the Third is casual at best. As Norma muses, “Reading foreign news was a kind of pretending ... only confirming how peripheral we are: a nation at the edge of the world, a make-believe country outside history.” In choosing to leave the location of his novel nameless, Alarcon knows he is making it harder to dismiss.
Constant references to “the city” and “the jungle” give “Lost City Radio” the portentous chill of fable. Like Orwell, Alarcon has a keen ear for the language of repression -- the government’s secret detention center is known as the Moon -- and he knows that the more shameless the severing of intent and meaning, the more effectively it takes our breath, and voice, away. His primary allegiance, though, is to fiction’s defiant particularity. He’s entranced with the precise composition of the flotsam on a winter beach, the boastful posturing in a dance hall, the eagerness of a new father to explain “to a passenger in the seat beside him, always a woman, that he was exhausted because the baby had been up all night.” This country doesn’t need a name to make us feel that Alarcon knows it.
Most important, his characters are fully flesh and heart-breakingly fallible. In another setting, the story of Norma and Rey would contain elements of comedy as well as tragedy. On the night they meet, 20 years before the novel opens, a boozy encounter with soldiers leaves Norma walking home alone with Rey’s wallet in her pocket. In Alarcon’s country, though, Rey doesn’t turn up again for a year and Norma realizes that a man she hardly knows has entrusted her with a dangerous secret. Looking back, she tries to sort out the attraction that persists even after he surfaces and pretends not to remember her. Was she drawn to his weakness or his strength? Or to the romance of the situation? The war, Alarcon writes, was then only a few weeks old and far enough away that “many of the students still thought of it with excitement, as if it were a party they would soon be invited to attend.”
Few first-time novelists skillfully pursue so many separate intentions -- history, mystery, cautionary tale -- or manage to coordinate their simultaneous unfolding. “Lost City Radio” is a bravura performance. In one of Alarcon’s favorite techniques, an event or a word will be mentioned and left without explanation or translation. Chapters later, amplification arrives. One mysterious word, tadek, is first encountered in connection with Victor’s jungle village and resurfaces in a discussion of a journal article in which we learn that it is a kind of trial by ordeal. Finally, as the novel approaches its wrenching conclusion, Alarcon makes us experience tadek through the eyes of its helpless participants. That path -- from resigned ignorance through academic appreciation to gut sense -- will be familiar to anyone who’s ever learned another language. The same path leads these characters to a kind of grace.
The world Alarcon portrays in “Lost City Radio” is intriguingly exotic. Yet as he examines the peculiar mental adjustments by which a lover turns betrayal into the linchpin of a marriage, or an informant chooses plausibility over accuracy, or a city not at war regards armed soldiers as a necessary presence, this anonymous and foreign country no longer seems so distant from our own. *