A Luminous Republic by Andrés Barba
Boston. Mariner Books. 2020. 208 pages.
ANDRÉS BARBA’S A Luminous Republic is a hell of a little novel. The Spanish writer returns to one of his favorite types of people to write about—children—to show how life in a city turns to hell when it is visited by a group of children from out of town.
Barba, born in 1975 and living in Madrid, has fashioned a narrator who gets to witness how an entire community is turned upside down by the inexplicable arrival of thirty-two children who seem to appear out of nowhere and who, after a violent attack on some of the city’s inhabitants, seem to disappear into the uncharted rain forest bordering the subtropical city of San Cristóbal.
Like the reader, Barba’s narrator appears to be an outsider to this topographical setting, which, on the surface, is equipped with the easily recognizable features of magical realism (“magic” is a term mentioned throughout the text). Yet, just as the narrator gets more and more drawn into the unraveling story of troubling events, the reader, too, has difficulties remaining neutral vis-à-vis the savage kids intruding first into the city and, eventually, into the minds of its inhabitants. Arriving in the impoverished city as a young civil servant working for the Social Affairs Department, the narrator gets to appreciate the impoverished city and its ominous setting bordering the jungle only reluctantly, observing the downturn first from an aloof position of reason and education (another key ingredient of magical realism) before becoming wrapped up himself in the chase of the juvenile gang.
While A Luminous Republic succeeds as a technically brilliant work of great storytelling that pushes the unraveling chain of events confidently through a maze of puzzling events, darkening moods, and supporting characters, at the same time the book competently engages its readers in thinking deeply about children and our attitudes toward them. Throughout his entire first-person narrative, the narrator presents, en passant, a critical history of the way we have been thinking and writing about children. “In exchange for love,” he observes at one point, “the children are required to uphold the myth of their innocence. Not only do they have to be innocent, they have to perform it.”
To be sure, the story of the children whose language remains as much a mystery as their origins and whereabouts is in itself masterly told and easily captures the attention of the reader the way a Hitchcock movie entices us at times to identify with the perspective of the intruder. The real pleasure of the text, however, originates with the dense and elegantly woven net of cultural, sociological, and psychological references to our imaginations about childhood. It is simply fascinating to see how the author has the gang of the destitute children roam though the streets of the city while seducing the city’s own children and terrifying their parents, who begin to look at their own kids with different eyes. One needs to turn to the novels of José Saramago to find similarly empathetic, intelligent, and moving accounts of hysteria engulfing communities by a blight that they don’t understand, not because it is so very foreign, but instead so very close to them.
“Childhood is stronger than fiction,” muses Barba’s narrator. His creator has convinced us that this piece of fiction about childhood is among the strongest to be found on the shelves of our libraries.