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Valeria Luiselli: El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive)

If I have one criticism of this book, it is the title. The title gives the impression that it is a work of non-fiction. Indeed, that almost put me off reading it. Yes, there are several archives mentioned in this book, including an archive about the children, but there is a lot more to this book.

Having said all that, the title apart, this is one of the best books I have read for a long time. Its focus is on the children who travel unaccompanied from Mexico and the Northern Triangle (i.e. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) and then try to turn themselves into the Border Patrol, in the hope that they will be allowed to stay. All too often they are not. So, yes, it is certainly has a non-fiction aspect. However, though this aspect is key, there is a lot more to this book.

The book starts with an unnamed married couple. (Neither they nor their two children will be named throughout the book, though the five-year old daughter will garner a nickname – Memphis – later in the book.) While there are some similarities with Luiselli and her real-life husband, the Mexican writer Alvaro Enrigue, there are many differences not least the fact that the husband in this book does not seem to be able to speak Spanish. Both have had previous relationships. The husband’s first wife died in childbirth. There is a son from the relationship. The wife has a daughter from a previous relationship. The relationship went wrong though she declines to give any details. The two children are brought up as brother and sister and call both parents Mama and Papa.

The couple met working on a project for Columbia University (where Luiselli did her Ph. D.) involving collecting sounds from around New York for a massive archive (yes, that word). Plucking, shuffling, and editing sounds is probably the best summary of what my husband and I do for a living.. One of the projects she does is collect recordings of people speaking various languages. There are apparently over eight hundred languages spoken in New York. The issue of sounds (and recording them) will be key to this book. Indeed, no doubt a future Ph. D. student will write a thesis on this topic, both the sounds the family hear and make, as well as the different music they listen to. (The five year old girl is a big fan of Janis Joplin while the Andrew Jackson Jihad is certainly an interesting band both for their name and music. Space Oddity will play a small but significant role in the book later on.)

She meets a woman – Manuela – whose daughter is at the same school as hers. Manuela had entered the US on her own and now her two daughters (eight and ten years old) had done the same and were being held in a detention centre in Texas. We learn, to my surprise, that there are a lot of children travelling on their own from the Northern Triangle to the US. Under US law, Mexican children can be easily deported but those from the Northern Triangle cannot and have to have a hearing before a judge before being deported. This, it should be pointed out, all started well before President Trump was elected, this book being first published in Spanish before his election.

Manuela speaks Trique, a Mexican language, and, in return for recording Manuela speaking Trique, the narrator agrees to translate various documents she needs translating for her two daughters. However, it does not go well for Manuela and her daughters.

Meanwhile with the soundscape project winding down, the couple are looking for other related projects. The narrator has now become interested in the issue of the children travelling on their own to the US from the Northern Triangle. She wants to follow it up and gets a grant to fund a sound documentary about the children’s crisis at the border. Her husband, however, wants to study the Apaches.

The couple had seemingly been very happy when we first met them but there is now clearly marital disharmony. This will become another theme of the book. How do couples adapt their personal lives and issues to the need of being part of a couple and, indeed, a family. 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.

He wants to relocate to Arizona while she wants to stay in New York. Their compromise is what much of the rest of the book is about. They agree to buy a car and travel as a family to the South. She will visit border towns and study the issue of the lost children, while he will study the Apaches. We follow their journey.

One of the key issues during the journey is the children. The boy is ten and at the age when he knows a lot or thinks he knows a lot and shares this information with his parents and sister. The girl is five and discovering who she is and what the world is. She tells terrible knock-knock jokes and tries to keep up with the conversations and the (often age-inappropriate) books they listen to (Lord of the Flies!). Both are aware of the marital discord of their parents. The girl, for example, wonders who the Jesus Fucking Christ is that their father keeps mentioning.

Their travels take them through the South of the US and they both note the change of atmosphere – abandoned diners and motels, right-wing, anti-immigrant views and the like. While travelling, she hears from Manuela. Her children had been scheduled for deportation. While being transported from the detention centre where they were being held to a detention centre from where they would be deported, they disappeared. No-one seems to know why. Manuela is going to come and look for them and she elicits the narrator’s help.

While this has being going on and while they have been listening to Lord of the Flies and the Andrew Jackson Jihad, they have also being listening to items on the radio about immigration and deportation. She has also been reading. (Another Ph.D. subject could well be what the couple read or, at least, the books they have copies of, both in print and audio form. At the end of the book, Luiselli provides comments on her reading and the works that influenced her.) She reads about immigration but also about children. She also read about the Children’s Crusade, including Jerzy Andrzejewski‘s Bramy Raju (The Gates of Paradise). She also reads Elegies for Lost Children by the Italian writer Ella Camposanto, and translated into English by Aretha Cleare. The book, the author and translator are all fictitious. In Camposanto’s version, the “crusade” takes place in what seems like a not-so-distant future in a region that can possibly be mapped back to North Africa, the Middle East, and southern Europe, or to Central and North America. We get several excerpts from the book, which is clearly about the children coming to the US from the Northern Triangle in the twenty-first century and not about the thirteenth century.

Halfway through the book, we get a major change, as the narrator switches from the mother to the son, who, naturally, focusses more on the marital discord between his parents. We soon learn why he is the narrator. Both because of his parents’ quarrels and because of the fact he has heard of the two lost daughters of Manuela, he decides that he and his sister should emulate them and themselves become lost children, so the pair of them set on their own, while their parents are still asleep. Not surprisingly, they soon get lost.

The idea of discussing the whole issue of migrant children and the human element of the political decisions made by Congress and the President (I repeat, this all happened before Trump was elected) while mixed in with personal issues – marital discord, parent-children relations and the idea of children finding out who they were and how the world works – was risky but works superbly well. Luiselli is one of the group of writers coming out of Latin America and Mexico in particular, who are examining the world in a direct and critical way and finding it wanting, and are not afraid to put their point of view across in fictional form. Whatever your views on immigration, this book is essential reading.

Publishing history

Note that this book was first published in English and translated into Spanish by Luiselli and Daniel Saldaña París
First published by Penguin Random House in 2019
First English translation by Alfred A Knopf in 2019