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Andrés Barba: República luminosa (A Luminous Republic)
Our unnamed hero lives in an unnamed and fictitious Latin American country. He had worked for the social services department in a town called Estepí. He had successfully developed a a social integration programme for indigenous communities, which was well received. Accordingly, some twenty years prior to the time when he is writing this story, he was offered a job. The job was to do something similar in San Cristóbal with the indigenous Ñeê community. His girlfriend, Maia, was a violin teacher and performer. and she was originally from San Cristóbal. She was happy to return, having had some success in her career so they go off to San Cristóbal, together with Maia’s nine-year old daughter, also called Maia. Maia junior, invariably just called the girl in this book seems to be estranged from her father. They arrive in April 1993.
Things start badly as they hit and injure a stray dog. However, they rescue it and adopt it.
Dichotomies are one of the things that are key to this book and we see this early on. For Maia, classical music was something that took place only in the brain, while other types of music — cumbia, salsa, merengue — did so in the body, in the stomach. This is compared to the contrast between San Cristóbal and the jungle. These sort of distinctions will be subtly played out in this book.
We soon learn the basic story of this book. Everyone sees the attack on Dakota Supermarket as the beginning of the trouble, but the problem began much earlier. Where did the children come from?
San Cristóbal has its share of poverty and that includes child poverty. There are children begging all over the city. Initially, this had just been the Ñeê children but, gradually, other children seem to appear. Where did they come from? Why were they all between nine and thirteen years of age? And what was the strange language they seemed to speak?
Various theories are pronounced and our narrator discusses some of them such as kidnapping (not unknown in the area). One theory, by a Ñeê representative, claimed that the children had “sprung” from the river. Our narrator says that this theory is almost more credible. During the course of the book he will propose many possible theories for many ideas, some directly related to the children issue, others not. Often the theories he favours seem distinctly off the wall though others, though perhaps unusual, do seem to have a certain interest and even credibility. Indeed, his philosophical ideas are one of the things that make this books so worthwhile.
The basic story, as we gradually learn, is that these children – there finally seems to be thirty-two of them, both sexes, all aged nine and thirteen – gradually infiltrate the city. Initially, they just beg but soon their behaviour becomes worse. They are threatening, they steal, they cause random damage and they attack people.
All of this raises the issue of the innocence of children and this idea is soon put to rest. The myth of childhood innocence is a bastardised, facile, hopeful take on the myth of Paradise Lost, says a local official. This is also, of course a key theme of this book.
Prior to the Dakota attack, our narrator witnesses a group attack a woman and steal her shopping bags and purse. Police try to arrest a couple of the children and a police officer is accidentally shot by his colleague.
Our narrator observes three keys things about the children. They seem to disappear at night. No-one knows where to. When the police try, en masse, to find them, they cannot be found. Secondly, they go around in small groups of around three and four. There appears to be no leader, just the small groups. They are compared to a murmuration of starlings which suddenly, en masse, change direction. They have their own language which adults cannot understand. With the benefit of hindsight and because a girl who was not part of the group but who observed them closely and studied their language, the nature of the language was subsequently determined.
We follow the development of the story, including the Dakota attack, after which the children seem to disappear and a mass search reveals nothing. We also learn that the children of the town of around the same age, who are not part of the group, become fascinated with them and even claim to be in touch with them by telepathy. This includes young Maia.
There have been other novels about children, as a group, becoming aggressive even when there are adults around. J G Ballard‘s Running Wild is one obvious example as is John Wyndham‘s The Midwich Cuckoos. Lord of the Flies might be said to be another example but there is, of course, no adult supervision in that book till the very end. The Ballard might be the most relevant comparison to this book.
This really is a first-class work by Barba. The various ideas he comes up with during the book are generally fascinating, even if, at times, not necessarily ones we would agree with. The idea of the innocence of children is certainly punctured here but in a more complex way than we might imagine. Our narrator is a highly articulate and intelligent man and we follow his own life, his role in the children issue and his many interesting ideas about the issue and other topics. Above all, it is a very clever story, helped by the information from the girl who wrote the diary. While we get explanations not just from our narrator but from journalists and various experts he cites, we are never entirely clear what really happened. At the end, we are left with the post-truth of the incident and, as we now know, post-truth may provide an answer with which some are comfortable but, for many, leaves a feeling that someone is not telling the whole story, that there is another story hidden behind it all. But life goes on…
First published 2017 by Anagrama
First English translation by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019
Translated by Lisa Dillman