A Luminous Republic

“Violence is always there,” Andres Barba has said in interview, “it’s the ultimate agent of social destabilization.” And so it proves in his latest short novel, A Luminous Republic, translated by Lisa Dillman. In the novel, the small town of San Cristobal finds itself visited by a group of thirty-two children who we know, from the opening sentence, will die. The narrator, who had recently joined the Department of Social Affairs at the time, attempts to make sense of what happened years later, but struggles to find easy answers. Where, for example, did the children come from? When did they arrive?

“It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when our eyes started to become accustomed to them or to know whether the first few times we saw them we were shocked.”

Their poverty is different from that of the indigenous Nee children, who “were poor and illiterate in the same way the jungle was green,” the narrator concluding that “unlike so-called normal kids, they were rightful heirs to nothing.” They roam the streets and steal in various smaller groups and without any clear leader:

“Someone once compared the children’s appearance to the fascinating synchronised flight of a starling murmuration.”

Their behaviour is also compared to “an organism’s cells,” and, when the narrator catches hold of one, “it wasn’t a human being in my hand but some sort of giant insect.” There is something inhuman about the way they act, and their interaction, which takes place in a language they seem to have invented. They are both a “benign presence and a terrible omen.” Little is done about them until the attack on a supermarket, unplanned and uncoordinated, but resulting in two deaths and three wounded:

“But there’s something harder to count than the victims, something infinitely more palpable and definite, a feeling akin to terror: the conviction that this was the first step of an irreversible process.”

The novel focuses not only on the narrator’s personal involvement in events, but also includes research undertaken later: it is both a confession and an investigation, having the emotional depth of the former while at the same time the analytical scope of the latter, accessing the theories of others. On a personal level, the narrator questions his own actions, particularly his attempts to gain information regarding the children’s whereabouts:

“I tortured a boy, for two days, to get him to give his friends away.”

At one point he meets a man who claims that “everyone had their own witness. Someone that we secretly want to convince, someone all of our actions are directed towards, someone we can’t stop secretly talking to.” This is, of course, a reasonable understanding of any first person narrative, but in this case the reader does often feel like a witness to events, asked to weigh up guilt and innocence. After the attack the children disappear, but they are not forgotten. For the adults they become an abstract threat:

“By losing their realness the thirty-two had morphed into the perfect monster.”

For the children of the town they are remembered in a different way, as they put their ears to the ground to hear them, and soon they, too, are disappearing, making the hunt even more urgent.

Barba’s novel is a modern horror, drawing on both fairy-tales where the children are frequently victims (but often capable of violent retaliation as in Hansel and Gretel) and newer tropes where children are seen as in some way alien, such as The Midwich Cuckoos. Here we question not only the children but society’s response. As the narrator says at one point, “often we submit to the prevailing morality only because the truth seems less plausible than the beliefs we adopt.” We see small town corruption, indifference and distrust. Helping the vulnerable is easy when the targets of our charity are passive and malleable, but, as the narrator says, these children “made us lose faith in the religion of childhood.” They are not what the town wants them to be and therefore town cannot help them, and attitude that exists far beyond San Cristobal.

In the final chapter, the reason for novel’s title becomes clear but, rather than providing answers, this only leaves the reader with more questions; a final image which will haunt us just as it does the narrator. Though not for the faint-hearted, A Luminous Republic is a powerful parable of dissonance and guilt which is likely to leave its readers both scared and scarred.

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5 Responses to “A Luminous Republic”

  1. Cathy746books Says:

    I liked this one a lot (although not as much as Such Small Hands). I thought it was really powerful. I like that cover a lot better than the one that was on my copy!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Goodness – it does sound very dark, Grant. Not quite sure I’m up to that at the moment….

  3. International Booker Prize Predictions 2021 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] the Post Horn! (tr. Charlotte Barslund), one of my favourite books from last year. Andres Barba’s A Luminous Republic (tr. Lisa Dillman) also deserves inclusion, as does, very much under the radar, Philippe Claudel’s […]

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