Lost City Radio

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Bearing striking resemblances to dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Daniel Alarcón’s Lost City Radio describes an anonymous South American country torn apart by a decade of civil war, of which no citizen remembers its beginning or its purpose. The war resulted in a new totalitarian government, which is committed to obliterating the native cultures and allegiances by renaming all villages using a numbering system (odd numbers indicate the village is near water, and the higher the number the more remote and mountainous the village), quelling native Indians’ languages and dialects and replacing them with politically approved languages like Orwell’s newspeak, and rewriting the history, geography, and culture of the country. Lost City Radio, however, is not about political strife or the effects of war on a country, but rather about the effects of war on the individual. The novel interlaces the stories of three main characters as it jumps from character to character, village to city, and decade to decade.

The novel’s first protagonist is Norma, a woman who has become a national treasure through her voice, yet her face is unknown to her fellow countrymen. Working at the only radio station in the capital city, Norma prepares news stories to be approved by the government and reads them the following day. Any mention of the war or of any dissident is strictly forbidden. This rule is reinforced when one of Norma’s coworkers, a classical music host named Yerevan, disobeys the rules, then disappears, never to be heard from again. What has brought Norma celebrity, however, is not her reading of the daily headlines but her program Lost City Radio.

Every Sunday evening, Norma hosts Lost City Radio, with the goal of reuniting families and friends who have been separated and have had their lives torn apart by the civil war. The program highlights the stories of the hundreds of thousands of missing, who came from Indian villages and poor barrios and were recruited by the army or relocated to the city in hopes of finding work. Perhaps dead, rotting in a military prison, or devoured by the city, the missing have never returned to their homes, leaving their loved ones to listen to Lost City Radio, hoping for Norma to reinstate their families, homes, and lives. Her listeners send her gifts and photos of their missing, while other listeners pretend to be the missing. At first, these impostures angered Norma, but over the years she has come to realize that “there are people out there who think of themselves as belonging to someone. To a person who, for whatever reason, has gone. And they wait years: They don’t look for their missing, they are the missing.” Thus, Norma invites her callers not only to search for loved ones but also to share their memories, to re-create the feel and scents of their villages. In doing so, the callers construct a new community, and Norma’s voice helps to heal a “country [that] had slipped, fallen into a nightmare, now horrifying, now comic, and in the city, there was only a sense of dismay at the inexplicability of it.”

Norma also has personal reasons for hosting the weekly radio program. Besides helping those in desperate need, Norma too is missing someone. One year before the end of the war, Norma’s husband, Rey, went on a routine trip into the jungle and never came back. Norma had long suspected that Rey had been involved with the underground Illegitiment Legion (IL), who were opposed to the regime in power and were therefore tortured and often killed when captured. The night Norma had met Rey, before the war, he was arrested and taken to a dissident torture camp known as The Moon. A year later, when he was released, he would rarely speak of his time there but would wake up screaming from nightmares.

Rey, the second protagonist, was a college professor of botany and specialized in medicinal usages of jungle plants. He regularly ventured into the jungle, performing research...

(The entire section is 1675 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 8 (December 15, 2006): 20.

Chicago Tribune, April 1, 2007, p. 3.

Harper’s Magazine 314 (February, 2007): 86.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 22 (November 15, 2006): 1139.

Library Journal 131, no. 20 (December 1, 2006): 105.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (March 25, 2007): 19.

The Washington Post, January 28, 2007, p. BW15.