A Story from the Fragments of Civil War

"A nation at the edge of the world, a make-believe country outside history." That's how Norma, one of the main characters of Daniel Alarcon's first novel, Lost City Radio thinks of her home country.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Daniel Alarcon's first novel, a woman named Norma calls her homeland a nation at the edge of the world, a make-believe country outside history. Now, Alan Cheuse has a review of the book.

ALAN CHEUSE: Norma is the host of a nighttime radio show called - like the novel itself - "Lost City Radio." She broadcasts from the capital of a nameless country in what we assumed to be Latin America, in the midst of a seemingly unending civil war in which many thousands of victims have disappeared. Norma devotes her show to reading lists of the names of the missing, and thus has won the devotion of an ocean of listeners.

Her empathy for individuals suffering has, in fact, made her a popular icon, so that when she and some companions are stopped at a military checkpoint, her recognizable voice gets them through unharmed. Her empathy is well earned, since her husband, the enigmatic Rey, has himself disappeared into the fog of war only to surface again and again in sequences from Norma's past. In one of these scenes, we see him being pulled from a car at a government checkpoint and taken to an interrogation center known to soldiers and guerillas alike as the Moon.

In another scene out of the past, we discover the paternity of a young boy from the country whom a schoolteacher named Manau - his mother's lover - has brought on a journey out of the jungle for the purpose of uniting him with radio host Norma. As Alarcon develops his story - and he works quite subtly, sometimes dangerously close to obscurity - his own empathy for Third World political misery and the ordinary dangers a middle class life under a system in which values float without notice from democracy to autocracy and back again, makes for quite powerful reading.

There were moments while I was lost in the intentionally imagined world of "Lost City Radio," when I thought as though our reading a novel by the - to most of us up here in the U.S. - obscure but marvelous Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti. I mean that as a compliment and a writer's - as well as a critic's - doff of the hat.

SIEGEL: The book is "Lost City Radio," by Daniel Alarcon. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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