|Lost City Radio
By Daniel Alarcón
Published by HarperCollins
February 2007; 0060594799; 272 pages
They took Norma off the air that Tuesday morning because a boy was dropped off at the station. He was quiet and thin and had a note. The receptionists let him through. A meeting was called.
The conference room was full of light and had an expansive view of the city, looking east toward the mountains. When Norma walked in, Elmer was seated at the head of the table, rubbing his face as if he'd been woken from a restless, unsatisfying sleep. He nodded as she sat, then yawned and fiddled with the top of a pill bottle he'd taken from his pocket. "Go for some water," he groaned to his assistant. "And empty these ashtrays, Len. Jesus."
The boy sat across from Elmer, in a stiff wooden chair, staring down at his feet. He was slender and fragile, and his eyes were too small for his face. His head had been shaved—to kill lice, Norma supposed. There were the faint beginnings of a mustache above his lips. His shirt was threadbare, and his unhemmed pants were knotted around his waist with a shoestring.
Norma sat closest to him, her back to the door, facing the white city.
Len reappeared with a pitcher of water. It was choked with bubbles, tinged gray. Elmer poured himself a glass and swallowed two pills. He coughed into his hand. "Let's get right to it," Elmer said when Len had sat. "We're sorry to interrupt the news, Norma, but we wanted you to meet Victor."
"Tell her how old you are, boy," Len said.
"I'm eleven," the child said, his voice barely audible. "And a half."
Len cleared his throat, glanced at Elmer, as if for permission to speak. With a nod from his boss, he began. "That's a terrific age," Len said. "Now, you came looking for Norma, isn't that right?"
"Yes," Victor said.
"Do you know him?"
"He says he came from the jungle," Len continued. "We thought you'd want to meet him. For the show."
"Great," she said. "Thank you."
Elmer stood and walked to the window. He was a silhouette against the hazy brightness. Norma knew that panorama: the city below, stretching to the horizon and still farther. With your forehead to the glass, you could see down to the street, to that broad avenue choked with traffic and people, with buses and moto-taxis and vegetable carts. Or life on the city's rooftops: clothes hanging on a line next to rusting chicken coops, old men playing cards on a milk crate, dogs barking angrily, teeth bared at the heavy sea air. She'd even seen a man once, sitting on his yellow hard hat, sobbing.
If Elmer saw anything now, he didn't seem interested. He turned back to them. "Not just from the jungle, Norma. From 1797."
Norma sat up straight. "What are you telling me, Elmer?"
It was one of the rumors they knew to be true: mass graves, anonymous villagers, murdered and tossed into ditches. They'd never reported it, of course. No one had. They hadn't spoken of this in years. She felt something heavy in her chest.
"It's probably nothing," Elmer said. "Let's show her the note."
From his pocket, Victor produced a piece of paper, presumably the same one he had shown the receptionist. He passed it to Elmer, who put on his reading glasses and cleared his throat. He read aloud:
"Norma," Elmer said, "I'm sorry. We wanted to tell you ourselves. He'd be great for the show, but we wanted to warn you first."
"I'm fine." She rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I'm fine."
Norma hated the 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 modernized, even the recondite corners of the nation. This was all postconflict, a new government policy. They said people were forgetting the old systems. Norma wondered. "Do you know what they used to call your village?" she asked the boy.
Victor shook his head.
Norma closed her eyes for a second. He'd probably been taught to say that. When the war ended, the government confiscated the old maps. They were taken off the shelves at the National Library, turned in by private citizens, cut out of school textbooks, and burned. Norma had covered it for the radio, had mingled with the excited crowd that gathered at Newtown Plaza to watch. Once, Victor's village had a name, but it was lost now. Her husband, Rey, had vanished near there, just before the Illegitimate Legion was defeated. This was at the end of the insurrection, ten years before. She was still waiting for him.
"Are you all right, Miss Norma?" the boy asked in a small, reedy voice.
She opened her eyes.
"What a polite young man," Len said. He leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table, and patted the boy on his bald head.
Norma waited for a moment, counting to ten. She picked up the paper and read it again. The script was steady and deliberate. She pictured it: a town council gathering to decide whose penmanship was best. How folkloric. On the back was a list of names. "Our Missing," it said, the end of the g curling upward in an optimistic flourish. She couldn't bear to read them. Each was a cipher, soulless, faceless, sometime humans, a harvest of names to be read on the air. She passed the note back to Elmer. The idea of it made her inexplicably sleepy.
The foregoing is excerpted from Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022
For ten years, Norma has been the voice of consolation for a people broken by violence. She hosts Lost City Radio, the most popular program in their nameless South American country, gripped in the aftermath of war. Every week, the Indians in the mountains and the poor from the barrios listen as she reads the names of those who have gone missing, those whom the furiously expanding city has swallowed. Loved ones are reunited and the lost are found. Each week, she returns to the airwaves while hiding her own personal loss: her husband disappeared at the end of the war.
But the life she has become accustomed to is forever changed when a young boy arrives from the jungle and provides a clue to the fate of her long-missing husband.
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He is Associate Editor of Etiqueta Negra, an award-winning monthly magazine based in his native Lima, Peru.
His fiction and nonfiction have been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salon, Eyeshot and elsewhere, and anthologized in Best American Non-Required Reading 2004 and 2005.
His story collection, War by Candlelight, was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. He returned to Peru on a Fulbright Scholar to Peru prior to publishing War by Candlelight. He is also the recipient of a Whiting Award for 2004.
He he lives in Oakland, California, where he is the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College.