Alarcón, born in Lima, Peru in 1977, is an American author who currently resides in San Francisco, California. Alarcón grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Columbia University and a Master’s from the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His books include War by Candlelight, a finalist for the 2005 PEN/Hemingway Award, and Lost City Radio, winner of the PEN USA award in 2008. He is Executive Producer of Radio Ambulante, a Spanish language narrative journalism podcast – telling Latin America’s stories in a very similar fashion to ‘This American Life.’ In 2010 The New Yorker included Alarcón in their best 20 writers under 40 list, and his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles, was a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award.
From an artistic standpoint, Alarcón is one of the forerunners in Latin American literature or literary fiction in general. His works have been receiving critical acclaim for nearly ten years, but also many of his themes allow his readers insight into very Latin American experiences and beyond that, very human experiences. Alarcón succinctly uses his novels and short stories to probe for answers revolving around the themes of violence, dictatorship and oppression, but also to understand more human qualities, like how we come to cope and understand loss, the role of memory, cross culturalism and transnationalism.
Alarcón’s work is, at times, hard to follow – not because of the content, but because of the varying venues in which Alarcón works. It seems as though simultaneously he is doing interviews with the New Yorker, in El Salvador doing research for New York Times articles, live-blogging the Copa America, writing new chapters for a novel or producing another episode of the Radio Ambulante podcast. Once you know the name, Alarcón seems to be involved in nearly all things Latin America.
Alarcón’s first novel, Lost City Radio begins in an unnamed capital city in an unnamed Latin American country we encounter Norma, the voice of the post-war nation. Norma is known throughout the country for her Sunday evening radio show, “Lost City Radio” which attempts to reunite family members separated during the long and terribly violent civil war that has shaken the country to its very core. Norma isn’t just the voice of the post-war lost, though, she is conducting her own search as well, for her husband, who disappeared into the jungle at the tail end of the war, nearly ten years ago.
Though the war is over, the tension created still lasts, and for Norma, she is but a ghost in the capital city, her voice fluttering through the radio waves, searching for the lost, for her lost. So much time had passed and so little had changed, until Victor, an eleven year old from the jungle community of 1797 (the government had renamed all cities and villages to numbers) shows up with a list of the lost, including the name of the boy’s father, and one of the secret identities of Norma’s husband, Rey, a college professor turned insurgency sympathizer, and more.
Alarcón, the Peruvian-American author, essayist and journalist sets up a beautifully intertwined story of government control, civil war and the affected human beings always at the center of the story. He creates a dense network of complex and conflicted characters, characters that, like all those in the country, have lost someone or something during the span of the civil war.
“It was true,” he writes, “It was always true: you could believe one thing and its opposite simultaneously, be afraid and reckless all at once. You could write dangerous articles under an assumed name and believe yourself to be an impartial scholar. You could become a messenger for the IL and fall in love with a woman who believed you were not. You could pretend that the nation at war was a tragedy and not the work of your hand. You could proclaim yourself a humanist and hate with steely resolve.”
For many characters, as time passes, it is hard to keep all the details in line, the minute political details, or the face of a son or loved one that has left to fight, never to return. “Memory is a great deceiver, grief and longing cloud the past, and recollections, even vivid ones, fade,” Alarcón writes. It is here he really flexes, really shows the beauty of his writing, but more so, his understanding of what it means to be human.
In the latter part of the novel the war itself and the post-war society are deeply woven together, both in character actions, but even physically in how the novel is written. Past and present share paragraphs, and at times sentences. Characters have become both angels and demons, participating in the war in ways they never would have imagined, and as the war drags on, many of them begin to forget how it even started - Who killed first? Was it worse before the war or now that it had started? How did political disagreements manifest to thousands of dead and disappeared? The bombs ringing in the distance, when would they stop?
As the government and insurgency battle, atrocities committed on each side, they search for “the solution,” to be “right,” to be “the winner,” but what those entrenched in politics and in this war never understood is that there was never a winner. There was never a right side, there was only a population stuck between two factions of violence. Success and beauty don’t come from violence, and maybe when Alarcón says, “What does the end of a war mean if not that one side ran out of men willing to die?” he is saying violence breeds violence, breeds shackles, leaves us with no steps forward only fading memories of peace and the past, and this is where the characters pick up and try to piece their future together.
Radio Ambulante: http://radioambulante.org/en/ Personal website: http://danielalarcon.org/
Daniel Alarcón in the New York Times: A Writer Thrives in Two Cultures by Larry Rohter
Traveling Players: Daniel Alarcón’s ‘At Night We Walk in Circles’ by Ana Menéndez