A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Published by Granta, 2020
Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
An air of foreboding hangs over this almost fable-like tale, which looks at the community response to the sudden appearance of 32 seemingly feral children in the subtropical town of San Cristobal. Seeming to speak their own language, and growing increasingly hostile towards the locals, tensions rise as the divide between “us” and “them” grows ever wider.
With our narrator reflecting on the events some 20 years later, Barba is able to add a wistfulness; the nostalgia, pathos, and regret that come with time and hindsight. It also means we, the readers, know from the very first sentence that the story will end with the deaths of all 32 children. This isn’t a crime-mystery in any traditional sense, but if it was, Barba is concerned entirely with the how, why, and who, rather than the outcome itself. Framing the story in this way instantly adds intrigue as we trudge towards certain tragedy, but with the entire narrative hinging on the Big Reveal, I’m sorry to say the answers that finally arrived in the book’s closing pages proved distinctly underwhelming. With so many powerful possibilities hinted at along the way, by comparison, the route Barba ultimately chose failed to impact me from an emotional, narrative, or thematic perspective.
On a more positive note, the atmosphere throughout is suitably cloying, and Barba flirts with lots of big, fascinating themes. These include: The human need for control, and fear of what we cannot understand; our ability to other those who go against the grain, dehumanising them so we can better justify our resistance; the idealised innocence we project onto children, and the imposition we feel when they fail to meet the ascribed moral standard; how much of our “humanity” is in fact a construct that serves to deny our true animalistic nature; and whether or not children retain closer links to this wild past. He also draws parallels between the adults’ reaction to the children and society’s hostile resentment of indigenous people, which I thought was subtle though effective.
It’s impressive that Barba manages to introduce so many ideas within the scope of a comparatively small word count. That said, I kept waiting for the sucker-punch that sadly never arrived. I also felt there were occasional examples of clumsy writing where the female characters were concerned, but I could never quite decide if the protagonist’s odd way of speaking about his wife and step-daughter was a deliberate quality of the character, or if it came directly from the author.
Ultimately offering more questions than answers, this contemplative, unnerving morality tale is certainly a good springboard for thought and discussion, but its uneven execution and failure to delve as deep as it could have hint at untapped potential.