Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive”

Everything that was there between Arkansas and Oklahoma was not there: Geronimo, Hrabal, Stanford, names on tombstones, our future, the lost children, the two missing girls.

All I see in hindsight is the chaos of history repeated, over and over, reenacted, reinterpreted, the world, its fucked-up heart palpitating underneath us, failing, messing up again and again as it winds its way around a sun. And in the middle of it all, tribes, families, people, all beautiful things falling apart, debris, dust, erasure.

Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive is a modern road novel about a young family moving across states. They are unnamed. For most of the novel the mother is the narrator till it switches to the young boy in the last part. Along the way the narrator is preoccupied with an immigrant mother for whom she helped translate in court and now the mother is trying to get two of her daughters across the border into USA. Unfortunately it goes wrong with the two daughters missing. While on this long drive across the country, the unnamed narrator and her family also witness a group of young children flanked by armed guards being deported. The family watches the little children board a small plane. It is a journey at multiple levels — the actual journey on the road, the journey that the couple are taking in their marriage which is slowly unravelling, the journey their two little children travelling in the back seat are making as step-siblings and as two children transforming into thinking individuals in their own right. This is a book that is the first written originally in English by Valeria Luiselli. It is loosely based upon her experiences as volunteer interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking legal status in the United States.

While Lost Children Archive has been notably longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 and may even justifiably be shortlisted for it, it may be a long shot if it wins it. The author who is obviously more than moved by the plight of the immigrants in USA has created this incredibly magnificent piece of fiction but unfortunately loses her grip on the art of creating characters and voices when seemingly in empathy she wishes to share the litte boy’s perspective too.

Claire Messud writing in the New York Review of Books says about Valeria Luiselli “Art is an act of transformation: the passage of material through an imaginative crucible, and the creation of something new. That something new must have its own integrity, must be greater than the sum of its parts. Camus’s explorations of the absurd in The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus measure the distinction between a novelistic embodiment of human experience and an essayistic distillation of thought. Many elements of Lost Children Archive are extraordinary, and yet the ultimate act of transformation has not occurred. One might of course contend that, in this ghastly time, such a transformation is no longer possible; but Luiselli’s decision to write a novel at all surely affirms otherwise.” ( “At the Border of the Novel“, NYRB, March 21, 2019 issue)

Lost Children Archive is worth reading for the fictional landscape gives space to a critically relevant issue about migrants and their children — more than an editorial or a feature article can ever hope to achieve.

6 April 2019

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