Lost Children Archive
by Valeria Luiselli (2019)
Knopf (2019)
401 pp

Whenever the boy and girl talk about child refugees, I realize now, they call them “the lost children.”I suppose the word “refugee”is more difficult to remember. And even if the term “lost”is not precise, in our intimate family lexicon, the refugees become known to us as “the lost children.”And in a way, I guess, they are lost children. They are children who have lost the right to a childhood.

If they hadn’t gotten caught, they probably would have gone to live with family, gone to school, playgrounds, parks. But instead, they’ll be removed, relocated, erased, because there’s no place for them in this vast empty country.

In 2014, Valeria Luiselli started writing a novel about children seeking asylum in the United States and their treatment, including inhumane detention and deportation by the immigration system, based on both her own experience as a volunteer translator working in the court system and a road trip taken to the border area, and in particular Apachería, with her then husband, novelist Álvaro Enrigue, and their children / respective step-children. Enrigue himself was researching the history of Native Americans in the late 19th century at the end of the American Indian wars, which he later used as a basis for his novel Ahora me rindo y eso es todo.

According to herself, Luiselli’s first attempt to novelize her experience was overly literal, polemical, and didactic:

[U]sing it as a vehicle for my own rage, stuffing it with everything from children’s testimonies to the history of American interventionism in central America . . . it just wasn’t working. There’s a different way of assuming a political sense in fiction, I think.

So she instead documented her experiences and views in the non-fictional Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions and then worked her experiences, including the gradual disintegration of her marriage which dated to the road-trip, into this beautiful novel — still political, but highly poetic as well. Lost Children Archive not only shines a literary light on its core topic matter but is a lovely meditation on family relationships and communication within families, and a novel firmly embedded in literature, both that of Latin America (Pedro Páramo is a key text) and worldwide. This, like the non-fictional novel, is written in English, after her previous novels were written in Spanish.

Given the timeliness of the topic matter, it is easy to see the novel as anti-Trump, and certainly Luiselli has said she is no fan. But it is sobering that the events documented all actually took place in the Obama era, and, while travelling through Arkansas, the narrator muses on Bill Clinton, and how he actually first started to “build the wall.” As characteristic of the novel, Luiselli’s narrator gives this fact a wonderfully literary spin:

Then there’s the slightly more comic than tragic death of the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, who did not die in Arkansas, but who was for some reason beloved by ex-president Bill Clinton, who lived in Little Rock when he served as Arkansas’s governor — so there is that connection.

I once saw a photograph of a beer-red, chubby-grinned Bill hanging on the wall of a bar in central Prague. He did not look out of place there, as dignitaries always do in restaurant pictures. He could have been the brother of the owner of the bar, or one of the regulars. Hard to think that the man in that picture, full of bonhomie, was the same man who laid the first brick in the wall dividing Mexico and the United States, and then pretended it never happened. In the photograph, he is shaking hands across the table with Hrabal, whose Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age Clinton might have read and liked.

I had read the book during that trip to Prague. I read it in a state of quiet awe, and underlined and memorized strange and simple lines that I still remember:

“the minute I saw you I could tell you were supersensitive”

“he was a whoreson”

“a composer . . . once tore a chandelier out of the ceiling in his grief”

“a giant of a girl, but beautiful”

“the world was as deserted as a star”

More than his books, more than his harsh humor and Decameronian tableaux of human tragicomedy, more than anything, it is the story of Hrabal’s own death that has haunted me, always. He died like this: recovering from bronchitis in a hospital room, while trying to feed the pigeons, he fell out of the window. But Hrabal does not live in Arkansas, so I don’t tell the family about him either.

The novel has a husband and wife making a road-trip from New York, across the United States, to Apachería with their children:

The girl is my daughter and the boy is my husband’s son. I’m a biological mother to one, a stepmother to the other, and a de facto mother in general to both of them. My husband is a father and a stepfather, to each one respectively, but also just a father. The girl and boy are therefore: step-sister, son, stepdaughter, daughter, step-brother, sister, stepson, brother. And because hyphenations and petty nuances complicate the sentences of everyday grammar—the us, the them, the our, the your—as soon as we started living together, when the boy was almost six and the girl still a toddler, we adopted the much simpler possessive adjective our to refer to them two. They became: our children. And sometimes: the boy, the girl. Quickly, the two of them learned the rules of our private grammar, and adopted the generic nouns Mama and Papa, or sometimes simply Ma and Pa. And until now at least, our family lexicon defined the scope and limits of our shared world.

My husband and I met four years ago, recording a soundscape of New York City. We were part of a large team of people working for the Center for Oral History at Columbia University.

Here the fictional husband and wife are not authors but sound archivists. But now with the New York project complete, they are working on their own different projects, the husband to document sounds relating to the lost Native American tribes (or rather sounds today from the spaces they occupied) and the wife those relating to the “lost children” in the U.S. immigration system. The separate projects cause them to drift apart, highlighting their professional differences (she more a journalist, him more an artist):

I suppose my husband and I simply hadn’t prepared for the second part of our togetherness, the part where we just lived the life we’d been making . Without a future professional project together, we began to drift apart in other ways. I guess we — or perhaps just I — had made the very common mistake of thinking that marriage was a mode of absolute commonality and a breaking down of all boundaries, instead of understanding it simply as a pact between two people willing to be the guardians of each other’s solitude, as Rilke or some other equanimous, philosophical soul had long ago prescribed. But can anyone really prepare? Can anyone tackle effects before detecting causes?

. . .

When we were in better spirits, we were able to joke about our differences. We’d say that I was a documentarist and he was a documentarian, which meant that I was more like a chemist and he was more like a librarian.

But they embark on one (last?) road trip together, with their two children, which forms the narrative thread of the novel.

The story is not told in a simple linear fashion, and it’s all the better for it. Luiselli’s narrator uses a classroom lesson given to her young daughter to make a point about writing:

She asks me to make four squares for her — two at the top, two at the bottom — and instructs me to label them in this order: “Character,”“Setting,”“Problem,”“Solution.” When I finish labeling the four squares and ask what they’re for, she explains that at school, they taught her to tell stories this way. Bad literary education begins too early and continues for way too long.

And in a line that could have come from B.S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo (and given Luiselli’s borrowing from across literature quite possibly did):

If we are forced to produce a story in retrospect, our narrative wraps itself selectively around the elements that seem relevant, bypassing all the others.

Because as with all of Luiselli’s novel this one is very carefully constructed, drawing on multiple sources, and here she makes them explicit, having her characters carry archive boxes of source material. She looks through one of her husband’s boxes:

It comes to me that maybe, by shuffling around in my husband’s boxes like this, once in a while, when he’s not looking, and by trying to listen to all the sounds trapped in his archive, I might find a way into the exact story I need to document, the exact form it needs. I suppose an archive gives you a kind of valley in which your thoughts can bounce back to you, transformed. You whisper intuitions and thoughts into the emptiness, hoping to hear something back. And sometimes, just sometimes, an echo does indeed return, a real reverberation of something, bouncing back with clarity when you’ve finally hit the right pitch and found the right surface. I search inside my husband’s Box III, which at first glance seems like an all-male compendium of “going a journey,” conquering and colonizing: Heart of Darkness, The Cantos, The Waste Land, Lord of the Flies, On the Road, 2666, the Bible. Among these I find a small white book — the galleys of a novel by Nathalie Léger called Untitled for Barbara Loden. It looks a little out of place there, squeezed and silent, so I take it out and head back to the room.

That all-male compendium forms part of the chorus of voices that makes a novel, indeed the opening lines from another such book, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, form a literal chorus to the trip as the in-car audio player seems to default to this audiobook whenever switched on:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

But I was particularly pleased by the reference to the English translation, by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon of Suite for Barbara Loden, a book that also triggered the formation of the wonderful publisher Les Fugitives (Blue Self-PortraitNow, Now, Louison, etc).

I turn on my bedside lamp and stay up late, reading the novel by Nathalie Léger, underlining parts of sentences:

“violence, yes, but the acceptable face of violence, the kind of banal cruelty enacted within the family”

“the hum of ordinary life”

“the story of a woman who has lost something important but does not know exactly what”

“a woman on the run or in hiding, concealing her pain and her refusal, putting on an act in order to break free”

The novel also contains a wonderful passage on the effect of such passages in literature on the reader:

I do remember, though, that when I read Sontag for the first time, just like the first time I read Hannah Arendt, Emily Dickinson, and Pascal, I kept having those sudden, subtle, and possibly microchemical raptures — little lights flickering deep inside the brain tissue — that some people experience when they finally find words for a very simple and yet till then utterly unspeakable feeling. When someone else’s words enter your consciousness like that, they become small conceptual light-marks.

They’re not necessarily illuminating. A match struck alight in a dark hallway, the lit tip of a cigarette smoked in bed at midnight, embers in a dying chimney: none of these things has enough light of its own to reveal anything. Neither do anyone’s words. But sometimes a little light can make you aware of the dark, unknown space that surrounds it, of the enormous ignorance that envelops everything we think we know. And that recognition and coming to terms with darkness is more valuable than all the factual knowledge we may ever accumulate.

And when she reveals to use her own archive box:

At the very top of the box, I placed a few books I’d read and thought could help me think about the whole project from a certain narrative distance: The Gates of Paradise, by Jerzy Andrzejewski; The Children’s Crusade, by Marcel Schwob; Belladonna, by Daša Drndic ; Le goût de l’archive, by Arlette Farge; and a little red book I hadn’t yet read, called Elegies for Lost Children, by Ella Camposanto.

The foreword explains that Elegies for Lost Children was originally written in Italian by Ella Camposanto, and translated into English by Aretha Cleare. It is the only work by Camposanto (1928 – 2014), who probably wrote it over a span of several decades, and is loosely based on the historical Children’s Crusade, which involved tens of thousands of children who traveled alone across, and possibly beyond, Europe, and which took place in the year 1212 (though historians disagree about most of this crusade’s fundamental details).

But this last book is actually a fictional construction of Luiselli’s own, which forms a lovely novel within a novel in the book, the author’s name meaning cemetery in Italian, and perhaps also a nod to W.G. Sebald’s Campo Santo. And as she explains in an extensive and illuminating afterword, the Elegies allude to various literary sources, including those from her husband’s box:

The Elegies are composed by means of a series of allusions to literary works that are about voyages, journeying, migrating, etc. The allusions need not be evident. I’m not interested in intertextuality as an outward, performative gesture but as a method or procedure of composition.

The first elegies allude to Ezra Pound’s “Canto I,”which is itself an “allusion”to Homer’s Book XI of the Odyssey — his “Canto I”is a free translation from Latin, and not Greek, into English, following Anglo-Saxon accentual verse metrics, of Book XI of the Odyssey. Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, as well as Pound’s “Canto I,”is about journeying / descending into the underworld. So, in the opening Elegies about the lost children, I reappropriate certain rhythmic cadences as well as imagery and lexicon from Homer / Pound, in order to establish an analogy between migrating and descending into the underworld. I repurpose and recombine words or word-pairings like “swart / night,”“heavy/ weeping,”and “stretched/ wretched” — all of which derive from lines in “Canto I.”

There are many such references, my favorite of all — as I’ve done exactly the same thing — when a child in the novel within a novel asks for a story, and receives perhaps the most famous piece of flash fiction in world literature: “El dinosaurio” by Augusto Monterroso;

And two of my favorites literary references from the main novel:

The narrator relays a fictional version of a real incident in Luiselli and Enrigue’s trip. As they, Latin American in origin and hence appearance, get closer to the border they are increasingly themselves suspect, frequently asked for their passports by law authorities and called to account as to why they are in the area. On one occasion Enrigue / the narrator’s husband claims they are they to research a spaghetti western, which draws a favorable response but further (albeit friendly) interrogation as to their inspiration:

My husband rummages in the back of his mind for names of directors of and actors in spaghetti Westerns. He is visibly struggling to win at least one point in credibility with our host. But he’s not managing too well, so I interrupt him: My favorite Western is Bela Tarr’s Satantango!

And when their children, towards the novel’s end, goes missing, she muses on how far one should allow children to stray:

A friend of mine calls this “the rescue distance” — the constant equation operating in a parent’s mind, where time and distance are factored in to calculate whether it would be possible to save a child from danger.

The “friend,” of course, is Samanta Schweblin and a reference to her wonderful Distancia de rescate (oddly published in English under the title Fever Dream).

One wonderful thing with the novel is how the children are brought into the conversations:

We both decided, even though we never really spoke about it, that we should treat our own children not as lesser recipients to whom we, adults, had to impart our higher knowledge of the world, always in small, sugarcoated doses, but as our intellectual equals. Even if we also needed to be the guardians of our children’s imaginations and protect their right to travel slowly from innocence toward more and more difficult acknowledgments, they were our life partners in conversation, fellow travelers in the storm with whom we strove constantly to find still waters.

. . .

Children’s words, in some ways, are the escape route out of family dramas, taking us to their strangely luminous underworld, safe from our middle-class catastrophes. From that day on, I think, we started allowing our children’s voices to take over our silence. We allowed their imaginations to alchemize all our worry and sadness about the future into some sort of redeeming delirium: tooshiefreedom! Conversations, in a family, become linguistic archaeology. They build the world we share, layer it in a palimpsest, give meaning to our present and future. The question is, when, in the future, we dig into our intimate archive, replay our family tape, will it amount to a story? A soundscape? Or will it all be sound rubble, noise, and debris?

Although it doesn’t always work as planned:

The boy and I fiddle with his new camera outside. What am I supposed to do? he asks.

I tell him — trying to translate between a language I know well and a language I know little about — that he just needs to think of photographing as if he were recording the sound of an echo. But in truth, it’s difficult to draw parallels between sonography and photography. A camera can capture an entire portion of a landscape in a single impression; but a microphone, even a parabolic one, can sample only fragments and details.

What I mean, Ma, is what button do I press

One issue that seems inevitably raised nowadays is cultural appropriation, something of which Luiselli’s narrator is very conscious:

Constant concerns: Cultural appropriation, pissing all over someone else’s toilet seat, who am I to tell this story, micromanaging identity politics, heavy-handedness, am I too angry, am I mentally colonized by Western-Saxon-white categories, what’s the correct use of personal pronouns, go light on the adjectives, and oh, who gives a fuck how very whimsical phrasal verbs are?

This is particularly relevant with the sections on Native Americans, rooted in historical tales rather than present reality. I was initially a little concerned with this, particularly given the salutary comments made in Tommy Orange’s important There There.

But the best answer to those concerns is a suitable way to conclude my review. From Tommy Orange:

Impossibly smart, full of beauty, heart and insight, Lost Children Archive is a novel about archiving all that we don’t want to lose. It is an ode to sound. Valeria Luiselli looks into the American present as well as its history: into Native American history, and the many intersections between American and Mexican history that are and have always been there. This is a road trip novel that transcends the form, while also being the perfect American road trip novel for right now. Everyone should read this book.

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