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Lost Children Archive

Valeria Luiselli teaches at Columbia University in New York, and works as a journalist in Mexico and the USA. She published her excellent novel Lost Children Archive in 2019. From the very first pages, I fell in love with the book: with Luiselli’s gentle narrative voice, and with the family’s soundscape, whom my reading allowed me to accompany on their journey from New York to the Apachería (Arizona). 

Prior to the trip, the family had come together through the parents’ involvement in a large project to collect sample sound recordings of all the languages spoken in New York. They collected the sounds of the voices of New York. At the end of the project, both parents sought out new tasks. The mother, through whom the novel is mostly focalized, plans to document the stories of the children who flee unaccompanied from Mexico to the USA. This has been a preoccupation of hers since she helped her friend Manuela look for her children, who were supposed to make their way from Mexico to stay with her in New York. However, they seem to have disappeared along the way. The father is looking for the ghosts of the last Chiricahua Apaches. He is especially interested in Cochise, Geronimo and Chircahua. These three represent the last moral and political leaders of the last free peoples on the American continent before the colonial settlers took everything. 

From the beginning, it is clear that the joint road trip across the USA will bring mother and father closer to their respective projects, but that their relationship is on the brink of collapse. The road trip causes them to spend days, weeks with their two children – a boy, 10, and a girl, 5 – in the car and reflect on their relationships with each other, with the children, how they want to live, their values and their political attitudes towards their projects. Alongside questions of parenthood and family, the novel grapples with the ethical and political handling of sensitive material. The necessity of archiving is conveyed as clearly as the need for careful reflection on how to do it right.

During the many hours in the car, the children learn about their parents’ projects. In the end, they provide the mother with the term “lost children” for her project – perhaps because “child refugee” slips their minds. The children are fascinated by the archives their parents are working on. They create both new vocabulary and games on the topics. However, their games stop being games at some point and cause a dramatic turn in the story. I couldn’t put this book down – the prose is still with me.

It’s a real pity that, in the German translation, the indigenous population of the USA is repeatedly referred to with discriminating terms. As such, some of the political sensitivity that characterizes the work of the protagonists and thus the novel is lost. I therefore recommend the English language original much more emphatically than the German translation.

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