The long-term effects of war have devastated this unspecified South American country, “a nation at the edge of the world, a make-believe country outside history.” Described as a long struggle between the government and guerilla forces, but with no real cause or resolution defined, we are left to ponder the lasting scars on a people who have grown familiar with loss and oppression, weary of conflict. Indeed, “What does the end of a war mean, if not that one side ran out of men willing to die?”
An island of hope, Lost City Radio broadcasts once a week the lists of names submitted to the station: the legions of the disappeared. Mountain Indians and barrio dwellers tune in to hear Norma speak these names, the lone comfort in the darkness of their despair. The listeners hope to recognize loved ones, perhaps to be reunited, made hopeful by the few who are returned to loving families.
Norma understands such loss: her husband, Rey, is among the disappeared. When they first met, before the war, finding one another amidst the song and drink and dancing of a village at night, Norma was fascinated by Rey, although their encounter was brief. She did not see him again for a year after an abrupt and frightening departure.
Returned to her, Rey and Norma are married. Norma accepts her husband’s eccentricities: an ethnobiologist, he travels frequently to the jungle for plant samples, teaches classes at the college and enjoys the nights spent with his beloved wife - until one night, Rey fails to return from a trip and Norma is left to wait.
The years drag on, and still there is no word. A decade-long war is fought and ends, the people adjusting to their lives once more, but Norma is one with the families who have no answers, only the lists of names that she reads every Sunday night, the wound in her heart growing deeper with time.
Profiting nicely from Norma’s program, the station encourages her work - within limitations. There are certain things that can never be said, names that can never be repeated, spies everywhere, questions rebuffed by officials who allow no independence of thought. Norma hopes to find Rey in one of the many prisons but is unable to make out his face in a sea of others, the insurrectionist leaders all but buried in the smothering confines of underground cells.
The, one day a child is delivered to the station by his teacher, eleven-year-old Vincent from village 1787 (names have been replaced by numbers), the last place Rey was known to visit. Vincent is the catalyst for Norma’s renewed hope and final search, an emotional journey that permeates the novel, a grieving wife and orphaned child, Rey’s duplicitous past tempered by his love for his wife.
An otherworldly tale, Lost City Radio no longer seems the stuff of imagination, but a grim reminder: “People disappear, they vanish. And with them the history, so that new myths replace the old.”