The connect of silence prevails
When Daniel Alarcón’s début collection of short stories, “War by Candlelight,” was published in 2005, it was met with universal praise. The Washington Post Book World compared the stories to those of Flannery O’Conner, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones said of Alarcón, “[His] stories are one of the reasons we go to storytellers.” The book garnered numerous prizes including the Whiting Writers’ Award, and was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction.
Based on the strength of his collection, Alarcón received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was recently selected by Granta as one of the Best Young American Novelists. Because of so much hype, his next work of fiction, “Lost City Radio,” is as anticipated as, for example, the Secret Machine’s Ten Silver Drops, but unlike the band, Alarcón lives up to his potential.
Norma is the host of the popular late night show “Lost City Radio,” a program that seeks to reunite people with their missing loved ones (think “Delilah After Dark” in a post-civil war South American country). For a decade, she has been the beloved voice of the show, and for that long Norma has silently dealt with the disappearance of Rey her husband, a covert operative in an anti-government terrorist group named the Illegitimate Legion, or IL.
One afternoon, a young orphan named Victor emerges from a jungle town named Village 1797—as Alarcón explains: “Before, every town had a name … names with hard consonants that sounded like stone grinding against stone … This was all postconflict, a new government policy … Once, Victor’s village had a name, but it was lost now”—and with him, he carries a list of names of people who have disappeared from his village.
On that list, contains one of the pseudonyms Rey used to hide from the government. From this point on, the narrative jumps back and forth, chronicling moments in the characters’ lives: the night Norma and Rey met, and their loving marriage; the time Rey spent at The Moon, an undisclosed government torture facility, and the events that brought him to join the IL; Victor’s fatherless childhood, and memories of his recently deceased mother. As Norma looks into Victor’s past, she finds clues that help her piece together her missing husband’s clandestine life.
A large part of Lost City Radio probes how society is affected by war—it’s easy to imagine the nameless setting as Alarcón’s native Perú, or, with no great stretch of the imagination, Iraq—but what Alarcón manages to do with his novel is to examine the silences—whether they’re self-imposed or brought upon by others—that fill our lives, and in exploring these silences he shows how, one way or another, we are all connected. These silences could take shape as the empty space a lost lover has left, or the ever-changing memories that try to fill that void.
As Alarcón poignantly points out: “[Memory] is a great deceiver, grief and longing cloud the past, and recollections, even vivid ones, fade.”