literary journalism

Heart of Lightness

The unnamed narrator of A Luminous Republic believes in bad omens. On arriving in a new city with his family for a civil service post in the early 1990s, their car struck a stray dog. He was soaked in the dog’s blood: the “baptism … was literal”.

Initially focused on integrating the indigenous community of San Cristóbal, a fictional city in subtropical South America, the man’s mission pivots to dealing with a group of children who appear seemingly out of nowhere. Ranging from nine to thirteen years old, they speak their own made-up language and have no clear leader. The newcomers make mischief – more play than malice – until what starts as a nuisance crescendoes to crime. A scuffle with the police results in an officer shooting his partner, and tensions reach a crisis point when two civilians are stabbed to death during a supermarket raid.

The children retreat into hiding, presumed to be somewhere in the jungle. When the police fail to find them and local children start to run away to join the group, mob mentality leads to a witch hunt. Piecing together what happened two decades later, the narrator supplements his own memory with public records, newspaper accounts, academic papers and the “cultural production” that emerged in the wake of the events. He is looking back to assess his personal culp­ability, including the interrogation methods used to get one of the kids to disclose his friends’ whereabouts.

The winner of the Premio Herralde, A Luminous Republic (República luminósa, 2017) is the fifth book of Barba’s to be translated by the excellent Lisa Dillman. What characterizes Barba’s previous work is a perfervid intensity of internal states: there is the group of orphaned girls compelled and commanded by a newcomer in Such Small Hands (2017); the older man obsessed with losing his young lover in the story “Nocturne” (from The Right Intention, 2018); the teenage boy tormented by guilt for being a passive bystander to an assault (see August, October, 2015). Barba has said that he is interested in periods of transition, in which “our inner scaffolding is shakiest”, because those are the moments that reveal who we are. If the emotional tenor of A Luminous Republic is less heightened than in Barba’s earlier novels, the remove afforded by recollection lends the narrative an allegorical quality. “We can only describe with any precision…

Read the full article online in The Times Literary Supplement

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