Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The International Fiction Book Club met the evening of September 19th, 2012 at the Blum House to discuss Lost City Radio by the Peruvian born writer, Daniel Alarcón.   To understand the author’s perspective that inspired him to write this book, I gave a little background gleaned from a 2007 interview with the San Diego Reporter in which he describes important events that led to his development as a novelist.  Born in 1977 in Peru, Alarcón moved with his physician parents to Birmingham, Alabama when he was 3 years old.  During his childhood, every other year he would make extended stays with his parents back in his homeland and attend school while he was there.  He experienced the Shining Path guerrilla movement without really knowing what was happening.  The blackouts in his school were a time for playing jokes.  Then, in 1989, his uncle, a leftist university professor and union leader, disappeared from the earth.  In 1999, Alarcón went to Peru and investigated his uncle’s disappearance.  In 2001 he won a Fullbright scholarship to do anthropological work in Peru.  He would often listen to a radio program entitled,Busca Pesonas (People Finder). The Lost City Radio program is loosely based on this experience of listening to people search for their lost loved ones.

When first thinking about writing on this subject, Alarcón thought maybe it would be a work of non-fiction.  We discussed how perhaps he was overwhelmed at the task of trying to explain the philosophy and history behind the civil war that plagued Peru through the 80’s and into the 90’s.  One would also likely have to try and deal with the extraordinary politics of 20th Century Peru.  From 1930 to 1980 there were 6 militarycoups and democracy was only a relative term and still continues to be a work in progress.  I read an excerpt from a research paper I wrote in 1999 explaining the origin and philosophy of the Shining Path, which the Illegitimate Legion of the book is based upon.  A few people commented that the author did not engage the reader enough by avoiding historical detail that could illuminate a struggle that started back in the 16th century when the Spanish conquered the Incas.

So, by setting the story in a fictionalized country the author attempts to “collectivize the experience of displacement”.  He did not want to get caught up in the particular details of Peru’s civil war.  Norma is the voice of the Lost City Radio program and has a devoted following because of her bringing together families and friends who were lost during the war.  The war has been over for 10 years in the “present” time of the novel.  Most of the action, however, is omnisciently given through flashbacks of Norma’s relationship with Rey, her eventual husband, and part-time messenger for the IL whose missing case is brought to the forefront of Norma’s life once again by the appearance of a boy from the village in the mountains where Rey did field work in Botany.

We see the life of the indigenous people through various characters and the author uses events that resonate with symbolic meaning.  We talked about how one such device was perhaps pivotal in removing any attempt at historical detail.  Tadek was a ritual that the remote village people used to discover who was guilty of a crime.  A young boy is given an hallucinogen and blindfolded.  He is led to the forest where he is surrounded by the possible suspects.  The first person he touches is the guilty one and must have his hands cut off.  Alarcón handles this brilliantly and the blind justice of both the government and IL death squads revolve around this portion of the story.  The question was asked whether or nottadek was practiced in Peru.  In the interview mentioned above, Alarcón explains that it was not.  He had read a book about Haile Selassie and it described a tradition of this sort that was practiced in Ethiopia.

Though the book succeeds because of adept writing, even while changing time-frames within the same paragraph, it was a common remark that it failed on a larger level without focusing on details of the war in Peru.  A short story forced into a novel?  Perhaps, but it was a good enough read to foster a lively discussion.

Next up, on October 17th, is Star of the Sea by Irish author, Joseph O’Connor.  See you there.

Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk.