BY DAVID DUHR
Author: Daniel Alarcón
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Daniel Alarcón’s 2005 story collection, War By Candlelight, made a big splash in the literary world, and for good reason—it is gripping work beginning to end, nine stories related with a maturity that belies the writer’s age. Alarcón wrote most of the stories while in his early 20s, but the characters, many of them as young as their creator, live their tales of grief and loneliness with a worldliness that cannot be faked. It’s little wonder that the book was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2006, and readers eagerly anticipated the release of his debut novel.
If novels are to be judged by ambition alone, then Lost City Radio merits high honors: Alarcón attempts to sum up in 250 pages the experiences of an entire continent’s worth of grief-stricken, war-torn people. He cares a great deal about his subject matter here, and it shows. The product, though, just doesn’t hold up, and Lost City Radio is done in by aggravating clichés, untimely and inexplicable point-of-view shifts, and a nebulous sense of time and place that prevents his characters from really coming alive. Which is too bad, because this could’ve been a very good book.
Our protagonist, Norma, hosts a popular radio show in the unnamed capital of an unnamed nation ten years removed from a guerilla uprising, a civil war won by a military government reminiscent of those in South America during that continent’s Operation Condor era of the 1970s. The government has since stripped of their names every city, town and village, and replaced the names with numbers. Norma, through her program “Lost City Radio,” attempts to reunite loved ones displaced by the war and swallowed up by the ever-expanding capital city. Listeners call in with names and descriptions of those they’ve lost in the hopes that these people are alive, tuned in to the program, and want to be found, and Norma coaxes them along (with what Alarcón dully calls her “honey-voice”).
Times are still tense, though, and the government hasn’t eased its grip since war’s end—names of long-ago collaborators of the guerilla group, the “Illegitimate Legion” (IL), are not to be spoken on-air, stifling many searches … including Norma’s own. Her husband, Rey, an IL messenger, disappeared near the village of 1797 at the end of the war, and Norma has not heard from him since. She thinks of Rey daily, wondering where he is, what he’s doing, and why he has not contacted her, but she is unable to add to the list of missing his name or alias, due to his IL affiliations.
But when eleven-year-old Victor emerges from 1797 with a new list of names and his own story to tell, Norma’s passive search for her husband becomes …
Well, just as passive. If not more so. Norma spends much of the novel wandering around the city in a daze, and she treats her past with a detached interest that the reader cannot help but inherit. Her lack of agency weighs down the plot, Rey’s story takes a predictable turn, and the narrative quickly becomes a hot mess of jarring flashbacks and point-of-view shifts (often in the middle of paragraphs), not to mention dozens of paeans to the colors of the sky.
Part One hinges on an improbability that colors the rest of the novel: when Norma is handed Victor’s list of missing, she doesn’t even look at the names (“She couldn’t bear to read them,” Alarcón tells us). Rey’s is there— Norma just doesn’t see it. Are we really to believe that when presented with a list of names delivered by a boy from the same jungle hamlet from which her husband disappeared, Norma doesn’t pore over each and every name (only a couple dozen in all) multiple times? She doesn’t discover that Rey’s name is on the list until 40% of the way through the novel, and only then because it is called to her attention by another character:
She had held it in her hands, glanced over the names: not one had registered. How had she not seen it that first day? […] Norma gasped. What was worse: realizing Rey’s name was there, that she had somehow missed it, or seeing it disappear again?
Alarcón does his best to bring to life his imagined city, naming its plazas and neighborhoods and describing the sky above (over and over and over), but he is never really able to ground us in this place. In one flashback, Rey takes us back to an incident from his youth:
In Rey’s home, the soldiers found a few books on unsavory topics, espousing points of view that had been deemed dangerous in the capital, though the decree had never made it to Rey’s town.
What are these unsavory topics? What points of view are dangerous, and why? Vague hints and generalities are all we’re ever given, and questions in the plot are left unanswered, or even unraised (such as how and why, oh why, does Victor’s mother seduce Victor’s father, and why is the idea of staged reunions at the radio station dropped rather than pursued?).
Even Alarcón struggles with his imagined setting. After a bomb explodes in a mayor’s house, we’re told that “This was the war’s prehistory, its unnatural birthing, more than a decade before the fighting would begin in earnest.” Three pages later, though, we read, “But really, who could worry about such things; wasn’t there always someone trying to start a war in this country?”
There are times when Alarcón’s innate talent shines through. In one scene, Norma takes Victor to see the ocean, and she has a moment alone on the beach:
She pressed firmly into the cool earth, and it felt good. She pulled her foot back to the dry sand, and crouched to admire her work; a perfect imprint of her foot. She made another, just ahead, and walked this way to where the waves spread out over the sand, a thin skin of advancing and retreating water. Then she retraced her steps, walking backwards. There it was: her disappearance. She had walked into the ocean and not come back.
It’s one of the strongest passages in the novel. It is also, however, a perfect summation of Norma’s passivity. Instead of becoming actively involved (beyond the radio show, which, really, she’s been thrust into anyway), Norma instead fantasizes about disappearing, about turning her back on it all and riding off into the sunset—the colors of which Alarcón would be more than happy to describe for us.
If you want to read some good current fiction with a Latin American bent, pick up War By Candlelight, Nathan Englander’s Ministry of Special Cases, or wait for Alarcón’s second novel, which is sure to be an improvement over Lost City Radio. This misstep aside, he’s a young writer to keep an eye on.