The Pied Piper’s tale is among those that come to mind when reading acclaimed Spanish author Andrés Barba’s new novel, A Luminous Republic, in an English translation by Lisa Dillman.
How much of the well-known story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is based on fact? Among the explanations of the tale’s origin is one that’s connected to the Black Plague. The rats that the piper was asked to get rid of were carriers of the pestilence; upon being offered a reduced payment for his services, the offended flautist proceeded to kidnap the town’s children, who were never heard of again. “Alas, alas for Hamelin!” as Robert Browning later exclaimed.
The Pied Piper’s tale is among those that come to mind when reading acclaimed Spanish author Andrés Barba’s new novel, A Luminous Republic, in an English translation by Lisa Dillman. There are plenty of other resonances, too. As Edmund White writes in his foreword to the book, “a Hollywood hack pitching this novel would say: Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness.”Among the similarities is the unsettling, otherworldly quality that it shares with those two works.
A Luminous Republic is set in a South American town at a jungle’s edge. Like all small cities, we’re told, it uses “the same mechanisms to perpetuate power, the same circuits of legitimisation and cronyism, the same dynamics.” Days are marked by subtropical torpor and political imbroglios and, in the words of one of the city’s mayors, the sordid is always but a small step from the picturesque. It was twenty years ago that the narrator first arrived here, as a young civil servant with the Department of Social Affairs, and the novel deals with his recollections of the puzzling and strange events of that period.
Almost overnight, the town is overrun by a small group of feral children. Reports emerge regularly of assaults, thefts and intimidation by this grimy tribe with sunburned faces and frizzy hair who nevertheless possess “a distinct sort of haughtiness, almost aristocratic.” They are spotted on the streets, in the parks, and by the river, roaming in small groups and speaking a language that was then thought to be incomprehensible.
The book’s allegorical nature
It was as though they had been transported from an unknown, mythic world, recalls the narrator, sharing the bafflement of the rest of the town. As a newspaper columnist then writes, “it seems obvious that their presence belies some purpose we have yet to decipher.” This is Barba’s mischievous way of underlining the book’s allegorical nature, although he is adept enough to not spell out connections and leave enough open to interpretation. Only the river, “an impenetrable green monster”, still flows impassively, “like a fable whose moral hangs in suspense.”
In this way, some observers speculate, the children could point to a vanished way of life, a state of anarchic freedom, or even a reminder that nature, primarily represented here by the dense forest, still has unearthly powers that human beings would do well to respect. The children become, as the narrator puts it, “the invulnerable void onto which the fascinating or the terrifying could be projected equally.” One gets the feeling that Jose Saramago would have approved.
When a horrific act of butchery involving the children occurs at a local supermarket, the town decides that it has had enough. The civic authorities finally resolve to get rid of this perceived menace, and their actions lead to long-lasting repercussions, not the least of which is that the townspeople’s own children begin to change. Some start to follow an odd ritual of placing their ears on the ground to listen for the banished children’s return, others are subject to vivid dreams, and yet others take to creating symbolic drawings.
Over the years, the incidents in the town lead to dozens of explanatory articles, documentaries and works of art. One of the pleasures of Barba’s novel is the way that the narrator refers to these and uses them to comment on his own perceptions of what really happened. This device of looking back at a momentous time through the prism of the present is what gives the novel an ironic depth. Among the learnings is that “humankind systematically personifies anything it does not understand, from planets to atoms.”
The civic official’s role in the departure of the strange children involves him in political shenanigans, attempts to influence the press, and events that result in a changed environment. Reading about these now, one can’t help but be struck by the parallels with our current predicament. At one point, for example, we’re told of “a veritable master class in populist dialectics: Call attention to an already out-of-control situation, offer an unattainable solution and accuse the political adversary of being responsible for it all.”
It’s this mixture of suspense, the uncanny, and incisive observations on the self-serving foibles of human nature that make A Luminous Republic noteworthy. As Edmund White aptly points out, it is “a book at once heavy and light, Caliban and Ariel, sombre and comic.”
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.