Secrets and Lies
Mapping the past, losing the future
BY SUZI STEFFEN
In Daniel Alarcón's world, people lie. Spouses lie about lovers, government officials lie about terrorists, spies lie to their masters, soldiers lie about their motivations, governments and rebels lie to everyone else. And people leave. They leave their small towns, losing their history and their way, and wind up in big cities or shantytowns with sprawling chaos and no services, where history is obliterated under the relentless march of the new, the asphalted over, the drowned and the buried. Maps are useless here, even dangerous, possibly fatal.
In Alarcón's brilliant and disturbing new novel, Lost City Radio (Harper Collins, $24.95), a civil war has torn apart a nameless Latin American country, and the aftermath rings through the days of two main characters, shining a soft yet blinding light on the actions and lives of others. Norma is a radio host; on her program, "Lost City Radio," she reads the names that callers give to her, names of siblings, parents, children, grandchildren — the names of those who moved from villages to the city and, somehow, lost their families.
But families aren't all that is lost. Since the war "ended" (though the brutality of the government crackdown is far from over), the government has replaced every city, every village and every town's name with a number. Those who use old names and look at old maps, those who remember and long for a safer time, even those reading the book who surmise that the country is modeled on Alarcón's native Peru, may wind up lost in the surreal world. Alarcón's narrative switches its urgent yet dreamlike focus between the capital city, One, and the jungle village 1797. Norma receives a visitor and a sort of gift: an 11-year-old boy, Victor, from 1797. Victor's presence ignites a maelstrom of emotions for Norma and sets into motion events that culminate in a fateful decision. Why Victor came to the capital, why Norma reacts so strongly to news of 1797, what happened to Victor's parents and Norma's husband Rey — all is revealed as the plot moves through past and present, recursively visiting topics and moments that turn into touchstones for the horrors of war. Mournful moments of revelation, small and slow, wind agonizingly through their stories.
Alarcón never neglects the telling details, from Victor's uncertain eating of a chicken leg to the color of the bedspread in the room of a rebel. The specificity is a reflection of Alarcón's time in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but the uncertainty and generalized dread hanging over the novel take their place in a long line of Latin American writing about war. When Norma thinks of her callers, she knows "it was mercy they sought: an answer, a yes or a no to release them from the burdens of waiting and hoping and wondering." Norma too seeks her answer, her lost one, whose name cannot be spoken without a fearful lack of mercy. That's what war does, Alarcón tells us: The violence of revolution is nothing to the violence of the state's repression, innocents are slaughtered along with the guilty and the delicate web of human connection will never truly recover.
Daniel Alarcón reads from Lost City Radio at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, Feb. 27, at Powell's on Burnside in Portland.
A QUICK NOTE: We don't get enough readings in Eugene, but we have the opportunity to hear UO creative writing prof Cai Emmons read from her upcoming novel The Stylist at 8 pm on Thursday, Feb. 22 in the Knight Library. Emmons' moving first novel, His Mother's Son, dealt with years-later implications and repercussions of a Kip Kinkel-like school shooting. We hear we can expect The Stylist, due out in September, to involve traveling, transformation and, yes, hairstyling, all wrapped in Emmons' closely observed prose.
BOOK NOTES: Reading and release party for the first release for Tsunami Press, Ken Babbs' Lost a Bird, Found a Bird, 7:30 pm 2/17, Tsunami Books. Rene Denfeld reads from All God's Children: Inside the Dark and Violent World of Street Families, 3 pm 2/17, Barnes & Noble. Mattilda, Priya Kandaswamy and Jennifer Blowdryer discuss Nobody Passes, 7:30 pm 2/19, Powell's on Hawthorne, Portland. Chris Chester, author of the 2007 Readin' in the Rain selection Providence of a Sparrow, speaks, 7 pm 2/21, Hult Center. Walter Kirn reads from The Unbinding, 7:30 pm 2/21, Powell's on Burnside, Portland. Cai Emmons reads from her upcoming novel The Stylist, 8 pm 2/22, Knight Library, UO. Ishmeal Beah reads from A Long Way Gone, 7:30 pm 2/22, Powell's on Hawthorne, Portland. Mark Strand reads, 7:30 pm 2/26, First Congregational Church, Portland. $18, $14 stu., sr., $5 youth. Jerry Oltion speaks on "Science Fiction Demystified," 6:30 pm 3/1, Baker Downtown Center. $10; Willamette Writers members free.