Town With No Name

Daniel Alarcón's heroine uses the airwaves to search for lost loves in a war-torn land

Although Lost City Radio is Daniel Alarcón's first novel, his previous short stories hold a novel-like attachment to one protagonist: the city of Lima. In the young Peruvian American author's 2005 collection, War by Candlelight, Lima wasn't just a staging ground for the rotating casts of characters; the city emerged as the book's subject.

Alarcón's brief oeuvre has been rooted in the deep textures of place: In the fittingly titled short story "Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979," every page finds a new avatar, from the "roadside mechanics . . . stained oily black from head to toe . . . the fiercest angels, the city's living dead" to a man in an "ill-fitting suit" selling Chiclets on a crosstown bus. So it's significant to a nearly heavy-handed degree that Lost City Radio never offers the name of the South American nation where it occurs. The country's towns don't even have names: In the aftermath of a long war, the government has replaced the quirky local tags—"unwieldy, millenarian name[s] from God-knows-which extinct people"—with Orwellian numbers: 1797, 1791, 1793.

The war—as vaguely defined as the country it tears up—is the central event in Alarcón's novel. In the present, where we begin, the conflict officially ended a decade before, but the war's legacy still composes both the professional and personal world of our main character. Norma is a honey-voiced DJ with a popular weekly show, Lost City Radio, in which citizens appear on-air to describe loved ones lost in the massive upheaval. Inevitably, she's patient as well as doctor; her own husband, Rey, an ethnobotanist with a passion for fungi and, just maybe, violent revolution, went missing in the war's final period, and she longs to turn her studio into a personal pulpit.

A government warning against broadcasting insurgents' names has kept her in check, but the wish is revived with the arrival of an 11-year-old orphan from the jungle hamlet of 1797. After the death of his mother, young Victor has been sent to the city as an emissary for his town, and he shows up at the station with a list of people 1797 has lost. Norma soon notices that one of Rey's old aliases is included among the names, though the boy doesn't know why.

Like most of the information traded in Lost City Radio, that communiqué from Norma's earlier life will precipitate more confusion than aid. This isn't true only for the characters in the novel. (Norma, for one, will be forced to reconsider not just what happened to Rey, but the very signposts she'd taken for granted—that his extra names were aliases, and not the other way around; that he was traveling when he left her, not visiting when he saw her.) It's also true for the reader. Alarcón's writing is lucid and measured, but as the book tracks everyone's backstory it descends into a whorl of times and tenses that can be hypnotically hard to follow.

This has a purpose, however: By encouraging us to mix up towns 1791 and 1797, or to blur an intraconflict incident with a postwar insurgency, Alarcón is replicating the vertigo of his nameless state. We're being conscripted in a sense, forced to read under battle conditions, which shows admirable loyalty to the theme even as it sacrifices narrative clarity.

But within this decidedly unsettled setting, this non-nation of "confiscated maps," a strong current of intimacy emerges. Amid the jumble of meaningless numbers and names, it can be hard to tell which ones matter—making it all the more cutting that some clearly do. Rey has been missing for 10 years when Victor shows up. For Norma, learning that the boy is 11 changes everything. Quick math makes hers a painful story, but what counts is that she insists on doing the arithmetic. That precision is a radical act in a land where hazy identities are state-sanctioned. Norma and Victor, in doggedly pursuing each detail of their search, are taking on certain risks—political persecution, emotional pain—to counteract a greater one: that they could continue to look out the window, as Norma does in the novel's opening pages, and find a featureless landscape with "nothing to see."

Lost City Radio argues that such an effacement, from the topographical to the personal, is war's deepest danger. And so in the end, Alarcón's refusal to give this country a name is not such a hokey device. War by Candlelightdescribed a Peru pocked with conflict; Lost City Radiosuggests that a truly vicious war wouldn't take place in Lima, or "anywhere" exactly, at all.

 
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