The Maoist rebellion that raged through Peru during the 1980s and early 1990s is estimated to have claimed seventy thousand lives. The Shining Path was brutal in its methods, favouring summary executions and public butcherings. The state responded by providing local militias with arms and giving them the freedom to detain, torture and murder supposed rebels. The shadow of this conflict looms large over the career of the Peruvian-American writer Daniel Alarcón. Alarcón himself dislikes the label: ‘Peruvian-American,’ he has said, ‘is not a set of words that exists.’ Alarcón was born in Lima but grew up in the US; and the phrase, even if it shouldn’t exist, gives some indication of his disposition. He writes about the conflict, but with a degree of detachment. His fictions about war avoid specifics.
In Alarcón’s first novel, Lost City Radio, the conflict clearly takes place in South America, but there are fictional towns and regions, and we never know exactly where we are. The city is portrayed in all its grubby detail, the countryside is both a haven and a maliciously bewildering jungle. (In Alarcón’s collection of short stories, War by Candlelight, published in 2005, the jungle was the guerrillas’ ‘greatest enemy. Unattended food vanishes in minutes, with living things bursting from the soil to retrieve it, digest it, destroy it.’) The state, meanwhile, has forced its citizens to rename their towns with numbers: ‘Before, every town had a name; an unwieldy, millenarian name inherited from God-knows-which extinct people, names with hard consonants that sounded like stone grinding against stone. But everything was being modernised, even the recondite corners of the nation. This was all post-conflict, a new government policy.’ In his short story ‘Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979’, Alarcón referred to his birthplace as ‘our make-believe nation’; in Lost City Radio he wants to keep the uncertainties in play. ‘The general arc of the war as it unfolds in the novel is similar to that of the Peruvian conflict, and everyone will be able to recognise this,’ Alarcón said in a recent interview; ‘I wanted it to exist just above this commonly agreed upon reality.’ This is not magic realism, however. The tone is unhurriedly plain, at times cynical, playful only in a rueful way. The characters, rather more than the novel’s readers, are encouraged to suspend their disbelief. A couple look out onto the slums of the sleeping city, which seem ‘like the inside of a dimly glowing machine’: ‘The shanties, in this light, might not be shanties at all.’ The couple ‘could squint and imagine it to be an orderly city, like any of hundreds that exist in the world’.
Like an old-fashioned detective story, Lost City Radio opens in a seedy office and with a mystery. There is an overflowing ashtray, a bottle of pills and a filthy pitcher of water. There is also an 11-year-old boy, alone, carrying a note. He has turned up at the national radio station to speak to Norma, the host of an immensely popular show. Its premise is simple: with the war now over, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people are refugees; each Sunday, Norma calls out a selection of the names of the displaced, in the hope of reuniting them with their families. For her boss, it is a way to ‘profit from the unrest’. For Norma, it is more than a public service: her husband, Rey, disappeared during the turmoil, and the show has become her way of searching for him. Norma still sleeps with the door open, waiting for him to come back.
The boy is an orphan called Victor and he has been sent from Village 1797 in the eastern jungle with a list of the names of the local missing. Norma is not the maternal sort, but she agrees to take him in. Victor’s presence provokes a series of memories about her former life, the child she failed to conceive with Rey and the bereavements of the conflict. Victor seems old beyond his years: ‘Happiness, he’d decided, was a kind of amnesia.’ His youthful trepidation reminds her of her husband. ‘Rey used to cry in the same way, used to wake up in a sweat, a fever, a fit.’ Moreover, Village 1797, we soon learn, had an association with Rey. Norma isn’t quite sure what this was; but then she discovers that a pseudonym for her husband is written alongside the names on Victor’s list.
Lost City Radio revolves around an absence. The void left by Rey is a focus for Alarcón’s exploration of the politics of warfare as well as its private consequences. The notion that war functions most effectively through depersonalisation impinges on – and is symbolised by – the character of Rey himself. He is ghostly even when we observe him in the past: a series of shadows, a cycle of roles, a sequence of reactions. Alarcón deliberately makes him distant, in order to make him capable of brutality. Nothing deters people from the romance of conflict quite as much as closeness with others. ‘What will you do when the time comes to act?’ a revolutionary asks his older brother in ‘War by Candlelight’. ‘When you’re my age you’ll understand,’ the brother replies. ‘I have a wife. I have two daughters.’ But before the war the youngsters in Alarcón’s country, who had no personal ties, were able to embrace bloodshed: ‘Those of Norma’s generation still spoke of violence with awe and reverence: cleansing violence, purifying violence, violence that would spawn virtue . . . It was the language that . . . Rey fell in love with.’
Norma first meets Rey at a party, where they dance and poke fun at the president. On the way home, Rey is arrested for not having his papers. He is taken to a sinister government compound called the Moon, and imprisoned and tortured for a year. He doesn’t particularly resent his tormentors; he realises that, like all the cogs caught up in a conflict, they are themselves powerless: ‘How could he hate them? It was their job.’ Rey has been dabbling with a radical group known as the IL, the Illegitimate Legion. When he is finally released, he promises Norma that he has been ‘cleansed’; they marry. But he is still swayed by the ‘single, implacably violent entity’ of war. Rey is a professor of anthropology. He spends time in the forests and the outlying villages. He writes an article about an obscure local ritual called Tadek, which comes to represent many of the novel’s themes. Tadek is a form of justice: confronted by a crime, the village elders select a young boy, stupefy him with a psychoactive brew and let him stumble around until he ‘finds’ the culprit, whose hands are then removed. The custom is indiscriminate and merciless; as such, Rey argues, it is not as archaic as it seems.
He refused to condemn it, did not call it barbarism or give any pejorative spin at all to his descriptions of its cruelty. Tadek, in Rey’s view, was the antique precursor to the absolutely modern system of justice now being employed by the nation. Wartime justice, arbitrary justice, he contended, was valid both ethically (one could never know what crimes were lurking in the hearts and minds of men) and practically (swift, violent punishment, if random in nature, could bolster the cause of peace, frightening potential subversives).
Lost City Radio demonstrates what Ryszard Kapuściński (an influence on Alarcón) referred to as war’s ‘incommunicability’. In war, philosophy can kill. ‘I was cold and angry,’ the narrator says in ‘Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979’: ‘Hurt by too many German philosophers in translation.’ (So too was Abimael Guzmán, the ex-leader of Shining Path and a former professor of philosophy.) Fiction, too, distances and murders. A villager in Lost City Radio becomes an informer during the war. Rather taken by his own prose style, he begins to fabricate incriminating stories for the pleasure of the process: ‘It was practice: this stringing together of words, these syllables lining up, and with them, an image taking shape.’ He hands over his report to a policeman. ‘My dear man, you’re a poet,’ the policeman says.
‘You could . . . be afraid and reckless all at once,’ Rey realises. ‘You could write dangerous articles under an assumed name and believe yourself to be an impartial scholar. You could become a messenger for the IL and fall in love with a woman who believed you were not.’ Rey’s work is conducted underground: he delivers messages, undertakes errands and, without having to do the dirty work, is detached from consequence. He sees his involvement as ‘an intimate act. Of course, he knew there were other people participating, but he never thought of them, never wondered who they were, felt no kinship with these mysterious and invisible allies.’ He slips through life: as an insurgent, an academic, an aloof son, a cheating husband. Alarcón wants to say that this is what people at war are like. He chooses a quote from Carlos Monsiváis as his epigraph: ‘It is the people who are executed and the people who make up the firing squad; the people are both vague randomness and precise law.’
Norma prefers to see only the mask that it suits her to see: Rey, she thinks, ‘loved birds and verdure and the smell of wood smoke. He was not IL, because he told her he wasn’t.’ But after years of conflict and heartache, she too seems stripped of authenticity and volition; she appears as an assortment of façades. Ageing hasn’t helped. At one point, she stares at her hands, ‘wrinkled in a way that she never could have imagined’. The people do not know her face – TV seems strangely absent from this country – but her voice is renowned. It is beautiful, seductive, obfuscating. It moves Alarcón into a rare rhapsodic digression: ‘In her vocal caresses, unemployment figures read like bittersweet laments, declarations of war like love letters. News of mudslides became awestruck meditations on the mysteries of nature.’
Norma’s newscasts about Palestinian bombers and European oil spills make her complicit in the unreality surrounding her: ‘This listing of everyday things only confirming how peripheral we are: a nation at the edge of the world, a make-believe country outside history.’ Politics have deadened her. Faced with the necessity of mothering Victor, she finds it ‘torture to summon those kinds of emotions . . . It was hard enough to pretend on the radio each Sunday.’ On an outing to the beach, she plays a game of fort-da with herself. Having strolled out to the ocean, she retraces her steps, walking backwards. ‘There it was: her disappearance.’ ‘I’m so happy you’re real,’ a woman tells her when she is revealed to be Norma-off-the-radio. But her self-definition is built around a lack: ‘Rey’s absence clinging to her like some contagion’. Even more than Rey himself, she misses the person she was when she was with him.
Unlike Alarcón’s stories, which are consistently gripping, Lost City Radio is sometimes more exhilarating to think about than to read. Rey’s slipperiness goes along with the novel’s theme, but it is not always easy on the reader. He is intriguing; it would be interesting to know more about him, particularly as an anthropologist. Perhaps there are personal reasons for the sketchiness. Rey’s character is based on Alarcón’s uncle – the novel’s dedicatee – who went missing during the Shining Path rebellion. There are other imperfections. The plot is well planned, but Alarcón is sometimes premature with his revelations and heavy-handed with his clues. And Central Government remains an eerie background presence. This is a government that has renamed every town in the country and that produces public service announcements counselling the ‘solid beatings of children, in the name of regaining that discipline lost in a decade of war’. How does it work?
Lost City Radio is set in a moment both familiar and conspicuously other: not far in the past, but curiously light on technology and media (the radio and the odd piece of weaponry aside). This makes the country and its inhabitants seem even more isolated, and allows Alarcón’s characters to seem disengaged from the war in a way that is no longer possible in the real world. Even so this novel says as much about present-day Iraq or Darfur or Gaza as it does about late 20th-century not-quite Peru. In war, Alarcón seems to be saying, people always face the possibility of becoming detached from their original motives. And such motives are never purely political in the first place; as Alarcón demonstrates, they are personal, fragmented: ‘Consider the improbability of it: that the multiple complaints of a people could somehow coalesce and find expression in an act – in any act – of violence. What does a car bomb say about poverty, or the execution of a rural mayor explain about disenfranchisement?’