A Life in Translation
He was blown away, says Daniel Alarcón. It was incredibly exciting, kind of amazing. He found his name on the longlist of the International Literature Award of the House of World Cultures and the Stiftung Elementarteilchen along with thirteen others, including authors he has admired for years. ‘Lost City Radio’ is Alarcón’s first novel, albeit not the first book the 32-year-old has published. A previous volume of stories found quick success and was nominated for the 2006 PEN Hemingway Award.
‘Lost City Radio’ is a novel, he explains, set in some chaotic city in Latin America ten years after a war has laid waste to the country. The sole hope for those trying to find lost family members is the radio broadcast that lends the book its title. One day a boy comes out of the jungle and brings a list of the missing and dead to the radio host, Norma. Among them is Norma’s husband. After ten years of waiting, Norma begins searching – for her husband, his identity, for the lost country, for herself.
Alarcón’s literary career, too, began with a quest. He has lived in exile in the USA since 1980. His family was one of the few who left Peru that year at the start of the country’s civil war. Alarcón was just three years old. He emphasizes that it was all a fortunate coincidence: ‘My family left in 1980, but we didn’t leave as a result of the political violence – I think I have always been clear about that. For those whose work was affected directly by the political violence it would not be fair to say that we left because of the political violence. We were very fortunate immigrants in certain ways.’
Perhaps it was an odd mix of survivor guilt and plain curiosity, he says, that drove him as a young adult to delve into what had transpired. From his US-American exile, the child hears in the media that Lima is being destroyed: ‘The war – in the beginning it was very far away. It eventually got to Lima, you know, where my family had lived. And when it got to Lima, nobody was spared. Everyone was affected – rich and poor, you know, North Lima, South Lima, Central Lima – everyone was living under the same sort of conditions of siege.’
In 1995 Alarcón begins returning to his former homeland, actually just the country of his predecessors. Again and again. He can’t get it out of his mind. After 2001 he lives near prisons where the inmates are tortured, a no-go area on the outskirts of the city. He is hardly aware of the start of his investigation. The stories simply come to him. The people confide in him and tell him their tales.
‘War by Candlelight’ is his first book. He sets out to write about his missing uncle, though not in the form of a novel or a story. He wants to document what happened. He interviews labour union leaders, members of the Peruvian Congress, academics and family members. But because the reports don’t coalesce into a unified whole, he begins writing prose. Elements of these stories will later also find their way into ‘Lost City Radio.’
Yet how does a book about the search to recover a lost language and world – a state preceding migration and hybridism – fit into the scheme of an International Literature Award devoted to the subjects of exile, migration and multilingualism? Alarcón’s answer is prompt. Not without reason are the city and country portrayed in ‘Lost City Radio’ left nameless. For this very local story is mirrored by thousands of other very local stories: ‘I presented the book in Spain and it was interpreted as a book about Franco. When I presented it in Colombia, it was about the Colombian war, when I presented it in Argentina, it was about the dictatorship in Argentina, when I presented it in Chile, it was about Pinochet. In the US it was interpreted as a book about terrorism and 9/11 …’
It was an illuminating experience, he adds. And an uncanny one, he adds, as his life is the virtual embodiment of translation. In this he is surely right, because Alarcón does not simply live between worlds; he speaks and thinks between worlds. Not only has Daniel Alarcón landed spot-on among the greats of the International Literature Award of the House of World Cultures and the Stiftung Elementarteilchen – but he himself has demonstrated literary greatness. The literary scholar Ottmar Ette, jury member of the International Literature Award, lauds ‘Lost City Radio’ as ‘a brilliantly conceived and composed’ debut novel ‘driven by an unbridled narrative will.’ ‘Lost City Radio’, outstandingly translated into German by Friederike Meltendorf, goes home with the prize.
Lost City Radio
War by Candlelight: Stories by Daniel Alarcón
Harper Collins Publishers
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Haus der Kulturen der Welt
(01 January 09 - 30 September 09)