In an unnamed country ravaged by civil war, a radio program gives hope. Norma, the hostess, reads out the names of the missing. The goal is that those who have disappeared will reappear to be reunited with their families.
Lost City Radio is rooted in the history of modern Latin America, with its oppressed masses, its guerilla forces (who are just as brutal as the government they oppose), and its indigenous communities hiding out in the forests. The setting depicts an entirely convincing community, with its own cosmology and its own horrifically inventive rituals; most memorably, captured freedom fighters are sent to “the Moon”, a desolate and endless minefield pocked with craters, where they are buried alive for days on end. Despite the inventiveness, in tone the novel is closer to Orwell than to Garcia Marquez or Fuentes. Paranoia rules the day.
Everyone in this novel is searching for something and everyone harbors grief. In a story without heroes, Norma is the most sympathetic character. Her life has been on hold for a decade since her husband Rey went missing during the war. Her loss comes into sharp focus when Victor, an 11-year-old orphan from the backwaters, arrives at the radio station – a burden and yet a release for Norma. What she learns after the boy’s arrival turns her life upside down.
This novel is a serious accomplishment, but not without flaws. The narrative voice jumps back and forward in time constantly, which occasionally slows the momentum. And I wasn’t convinced by the idea that one of the characters, the informer Zahir, betrayed his friends through naively passing off his fiction as fact.
But taken as a whole, Lost City Radio is a powerful portrait of a familiar world. With its paranoid tone, its themes of loss and terror and love, and its depiction of poverty-stricken masses desperate to flee to the city, it becomes a fable about man’s inhumanity to man. Highly recommended.