The protagonist of Andrés Barba’s novel A Luminous Republic is its premise: thirty-two mendicant children appear in the city of San Cristóbal, make the local denizens uneasy, speak in an unintelligible language, commit acts of seemingly random violence, disappear into the jungle, and eventually lose their lives.
If this sounds like a spoiler, rest assured that Barba presents this information upfront, as this is a work in which the specifics of its plot matter less than the ideas derived from and emotions caused by its events. The opening line, for instance, directly references the “thirty-two children who lost their lives,” after which Barba spends the rest of the narrative explaining just how that happened. The children and the incidents involving them are ruminated upon at length by the narrator (an unnamed official in the local government), various fictional articles and op-eds from within the world of the novel quoted in the text, and by various characters the narrator comes across. By the novel’s conclusion, the premise and its many possible interpretations have been developed much more deeply than any of people acting them out.
A Luminous Republic employs a narrative device often used by Kurt Vonnegut, which presents the primary event of the story as a real event, references it as if the reader has surely heard about it, discusses it at length in discursive, obfuscating ways, before finally arriving at it in the final pages of an almost inevitable anti-climax. The technique is supposed to amplify the suspense, but instead ends up deflating it. In Vonnegut’s novel Hocus Pocus, the finale is so often alluded to and delayed in the interest of other plot points that it becomes a frustrating experience.
Early on in A Luminous Republic, there are lines like this: “Everyone sees the attack on Dakota Supermarket as the beginning of the trouble, but the problem began much earlier.” This is the first time the “attack” that “everyone” has an opinion on has been mentioned. It’s suggestive verisimilitude, treating fiction in the same off-hand manner one might use to present common-knowledge nonfiction. Magical realist fiction has taught writers that a no-nonsense attitude toward fantastical elements preempts a reader’s disbelief. Such an approach grants weight to the occurrence, grounding an unlikely event in the language of real-world reportage, which is especially appropriate for a short narrative that doesn’t really include much else besides.
The secondary character is the city itself, and how the collective response of its citizens bespeaks a fundamental gap between the reality of adults and the world of children. Parents like to believe they have a grip on their offspring—not a complete understanding but at least a general grasp. The homeless children of A Luminous Republic become especially unnerving when their actions begin to influence the rest of the city’s kids. In the eeriest and most unsettling sequence of the book, the community’s “children began putting their ears to the ground to listen for the thirty-two.” An unexplained connection emerges between the mostly nameless hoard of mendicants and the “normal” youths, revealing how easy it is for the bond between parent and child to bend, crack, or break completely. “Children,” Barba writes, “our children—were not only additional props on this orchestrated stage, in a way they were also the blind spots of people’s arrogance.” He continues:
People were so taken by their own sense of prosperity that the appearance of the children, the other ones, was patently irksome. Comfort is something that sticks to one’s mind like a damp shirt, and only after making an unexpected move does it become clear that one is stuck.
Barba is deftly capable of insights like this one, which take the place of dramatic action. Later, there is this exquisitely rendered observation:
Believing in magic is the same as love: those convinced of its existence, and of falling in love, end up doing so sincerely, and those who doubt our feelings thwart the very possibility of having them, a paradox that leaves us forlorn, wondering what we might have become if only we’d allowed ourselves to behave.
And that’s the thing about A Luminous Republic: its melancholic mood and contemplative tone are interesting, engaging, and lovely to read. Barba is clearly a gifted writer with a generous sensibility. So although the characters aren’t as well developed as its premise, it remains a novel that thoughtfully and compassionately considers people and as a result feels utterly human as a whole.
A Luminous Republic
By Andrés Barba
Published April 14, 2020