“It’s never clear what turns a space into a home, and a life-project into a life,” writes Valeria Luiselli in her new novel, “Lost Children Archive.” She could add: or what turns a stranger into a family member.
Throughout the book, Luiselli illustrates how sometimes even the briefest of interactions with strangers can somehow feel so intimate, and how, conversely, our entrenched relationships can become — with a word or a wind — detached and isolating, full of misapprehension and loss. So much of the novel — her first written in English, though her previous books in Spanish have been translated to much acclaim — reminds us how fragile family can be; it’s a taut web where a slight move might turn the homespun constellation to chaos.
“Lost Children Archive” shares the story of an unnamed family of four: a mother and a father who set off on a roadtrip from New York City to the American Southwest with their two children in tow. The boy and girl, at ages 10 and 5, have a special bond, though each is the child of the parents’ previous relationships. The family goes in search of Apacheria, the ancestral lands of the Apache, for the father’s research project: “He called it an ‘inventory of echoes,’ said it would be about the ghosts of Geronimo and the last Apaches.”
“Why Apaches?” the mother asks early on. He explains his interests to her, but when the boy later repeats the mother’s question, the father’s response is simplified for the child, and, in that simplification, the reasoning is crystallized, poeticized:
“Because they were the last of something.”
This answer seems especially poignant. Even the book itself feels like the last of something, though of what it’s hard to say.
“Lost Children Archive” is laced with the melancholy of last things — not only through the stories told of the last Apaches, but also the choices of literary touchstones: Rilke’s “Dunio Elegies,” Pound’s “The Cantos,” Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” Each of these sources provide Luiselli with lines she has woven into her text.
Luiselli’s central character, the mother, turns to texts for inspiration too. The words of others entering her consciousness act as “small conceptual light-marks,” like a struck match in a dark room. She explains: “Sometimes a little light can make you aware of the dark unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know. And that recognition and coming to terms with darkness is more valuable than all the factual knowledge we may ever accumulate.”
Luiselli leans on these snippets of literary inspiration not out of need — her sentences are often as scintillating as those of her forebears — but out of the documentarian’s reverence for the archival impulse. “I suppose an archive gives you a kind of valley in which your thoughts can bounce back to you, transformed,” she writes. “You whisper intuitions and thoughts into the emptiness, hoping to hear something back. And sometimes, just sometimes, an echo does indeed return, a real reverberation of something, bouncing back with clarity when you’ve finally hit the right pitch and found the right surface.”
When the father first announces this project to his wife, telling her he must relocate to the Southwest for a year or two, he immediately becomes a stranger to her. It also throws her own project into upheaval. The new sound archive she’s been working on initially revolves around the New York immigration courts, but it begins to grow and change with the acceptance of the impending road trip and the news of migrants moving north, attempting to cross the border, heard constantly on the car’s radio. She becomes fascinated with lost children, specifically the young migrants who have disappeared.
A childhood lost
The lost children of the title are manifold.
They are the children the travelers hear about on the radio crossing the border, whose childhood has been stolen from them; they are the children who have vanished while making the perilous journey; they are the specific children who have led the mother to this project, the two girls of a woman named Manuela, who were detained and then disappeared. They are also the children in the children’s crusade — the tragic 13th century religious pilgrimage by kids, which led to their enslavement — about whom the mother reads; they are her own children too, who reenact scenes of border crossings and Apache battles, and who become lost in more ways than one. And, of course, they are also, to us the readers, the actual children we have been hearing about in the news.
The book reverberates with so much that has been in the headlines for the last months and years, that it’s impossible to read it without those stories acting as shadows. The maddeningly “relevant” political novel is all the rage right now in the Trump era, but what separates Luiselli’s book from the pack, is that it manages to be political without being propagandistic, rousing without any didacticism. Though the book is unquestionably timely, it also approaches a certain timelessness, like all great novels , in the hopes of eclipsing their petty political alignments, which the long view of history is bound to make seem ephemeral and quaint, no matter how life-and-death they seem — or, indeed, are — in the moment.
At one point, among a flurry of personal concerns about her project, the mother asks, “Why should a sound piece, or any other form of storytelling, for that matter, be a means to a specific end? I should know, by now, that instrumentalism, applied to any art form, is a way of guaranteeing really [poor] results: light pedagogic material, moralistic young-adult novels, boring art in general.”
Yet as her list of concerns continues, we recognize in the character — and perhaps in Luiselli, by proxy — the eternal ambivalence of the artist, wrestling with both the need to engage with the world, including the politics of its present, and the want to transcend our pedagogical impulses, to move into the more mysterious and ambiguous realms where all great art must go.
Luiselli’s novel is the kind of book we need right now: one not afraid to dig into the politics of the present, but always with an eye toward posterity. Like the mother tells the boy: “Documenting just means to collect the present for posterity.”
“Lost Children Archive”hits the right pitch and finds the right surface, whispering back to us our own questions and concerns, reverberating with the headlines of the present and the great art of the past. It doesn’t offer answers or illumination necessarily, but it does, like the struck match, make us aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know. The book, like the archival projects of its protagonists, is an “inventory of echoes,” and we’d do well to listen to these susurrations as they return to us, in this time or in any other.
Alfred A. Knopf; 383 pp., $27.95