My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Peru. More on this later.
Knowing that we were going to Peru, one of my sons-in-law gave me a novel, Lost City Radio, to read. It is the first novel by Daniel Alarcon, who was born in Peru and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. The novel is set in a country which is not identified, but from some geographic and political clues is probably Peru.
It takes place during a time of violent political revolution that sounds like the Shining Path revolution which gripped Peru. Many people are missing. Its central character, Norma, hosts a talk show, ‘Lost City Radio’, which takes calls from listeners who describe their lost loved ones in hopes that another listener will provide information on the lost one’s whereabouts. Norma is married to Rey, who is a biologist with a keen interest in the medicinal properties of jungle plants. He has been drawn into the revolutionary camp and is an enemy of the government. For ten years, Rey disappears from Norma’s life, but she doesn’t dare to describe him on the air for fear that this will compromise him. Instead, she continues a lonely life in the city and at the radio station, until an eleven-year-old boy and a strange man arrive at the radio station from the jungle. Norma makes the connection between the boy and Rey, and this gives her the courage to talk about Rey on air.
Most of the reviews of this novel are very complementary. They say that it depicts war and human reactions to it movingly and well. War is senseless, yet people struggle to make sense of their lives in the wake of it. This is all correct. The novel has a mysterious vagueness about its setting, the passage of time, the characters, their relationships and motivations which tend to make the novel a universal rather than a specific statement.
On the one hand, I can appreciate the reason for this vagueness, but, for me, it had its drawbacks. I found it difficult to connect with any of the shadowy characters at an emotional level – or even intellectually. When I finished it, I thought: “Interesting book, but kind of frustrating.”
About Peru: it’s a beautiful, fascinating country. We spent a week above 10,000 feet, which was difficult. I wasn’t really sick, but I had very little energy or positive spirits. Much of the landscape is beautiful: the Cola and Urubamba Valleys, Lake Titicaca. Manchu Picchu is awesome in its beauty and its sense of mysterious community. The Incas were incredible stone masons. Working without iron tools, they cut huge blocks of granite with extraordinary precision. One thing thing that was off-putting was the decorations in the (Catholic) churches. Nearly every church had elaborately dressed figures of various saints. I thought, “Is this a monotheistic religion?” And in the cities, particularly Cuzco, the use of real gold (an 8 pound solid gold crown of thorns) and silver (life sized statue of the Virgin Mary made of silver) was obscene. Wouldn’t it have been better to give that money to the poor, of which there are plenty?
But I recommend a trip to Peru, and a read of Lost City Radio.