What happens when a newly prosperous city suddenly finds itself beset by a tribe of feral children, seemingly from the nearby jungle, speaking an unknown language, and causing the city’s own children to defect and join its ranks? Quite a lot, actually, most of it unpleasant. Set in the mid-1990s, and narrated as a series of recollections by a retired social worker in the mid-2010s, Andrés Barba’s A Luminous Republic concerns itself with the appearance of a tribe of thirty-two feral children “between nine and thirteen years old” (p. 13) in the bustling streets and cautious neighborhoods of San Cristóbal, a fictional Latin American city. Harmless at first, they disturb a precarious social order to reveal the corruption and ineptitude at the heart of the city’s administration, and the moral compromises, hypocrisy, and self-imposed blindness of its bourgeois society.
While the children are initially overlooked or regarded as a curiosity, their haunting presence in the city’s streets, their nighttime scavenging activities and petty crimes generate hostility over time. Eventually, they trigger a series of confrontations with the police that become sensationalized, an orgiastic assault on a supermarket that fuels fear and outrage, and a tragic counter-reaction that leaves a lasting scar on the town’s culture and politics for decades afterwards.
It’s difficult to decide where to begin reviewing this book. In just one hundred ninety-two pages of crystalline prose, Barba has written a modern classic, a timeless yet epochal novel about populism, tribalism, and cultural misunderstanding, meant to be savoured in the times we now live in, but whose haunting magic will linger in the air long after the final page has been turned. Originally published in 2017, A Luminous Republic is Barba’s ninth novel, his first to win the Premio Herralde (the Spanish literary world’s Booker Prize), and has been translated into twenty languages. Published in April 2020, the English-language translation is both timely and profound, arriving in a world characterized by precisely the themes it addresses, and therefore likely to receive the wide readership it so richly deserves.
Of all the enduring themes of the human imagination, few are as evocative as that of a civilization under siege. The image of barbarians lurking on the fringes of a prosperous culture, raiding its lands, pilfering its resources, infiltrating its society to unleash anarchy and strife, chipping away at its sense of ease, order, and security, undermining its identity, and corrupting its young is as old as antiquity, stretching from Homeric Greece to the post-9/11 era. What makes this image particularly stirring is when the civilization in question is itself a product of war, conquest, and colonization, and incompetently administered, thus subversively framing the debate of moral legitimacy, civilizational righteousness, and defense against barbarism in a questionable light. Add to this the themes of civic inaction, the madness of crowds, media sensationalism, and reactionary populism, and what emerges is an astonishing philosophical novel spiced with sociological analysis, at once addicting and elevating, triggering bursts of insights that are the hallmark of the finest speculative fiction.
While on its surface the novel is a thrilling and moving story about a clash between two fundamentally different cultures, at its heart it is a profound meditation on the fragility of civilization. After all, what justifies the legitimacy of a civilization? Material prosperity? Technological advancement? The quality of its politics? The novel doesn’t provide clear answers, but it does explore how San Cristóbal’s history, culture, and geography may have influenced its response to the children, and the tragic events that unfold.
Described as a city beginning to emerge from a hardscrabble past into prosperity, San Cristóbal is nonetheless full of stark contrasts. “After decades of heroic effort and boundless tenacity, a good part of San Cristóbal’s middle class had become well-to-do” (p. 42). We are told, in the detached style of a bureaucrat, that improvements to the region’s economy in the mid-nineties “led to real upward mobility for the working middle class,” resulting in a mood of “general frivolity” (p. 25). Yet, reminders of the past remain: the “harsh contours of poverty,” where “the sordid is always but a small step from the picturesque” (p. 4), continue to blight the city’s success, and the indigenous Ñeê community is breezily described as “dirty and unschooled … and poor” (p. 24). This is an emerging market society enamored of the novelty of its bourgeois prosperity, and so has conveniently turned a blind eye to its persistent socioeconomic problems. One generation away from memories of toil and hardship, San Cristóbalites are eager to forget, yet instinctively conscious of the fragility of their lifestyle and wary of threats or disruptions to their new status quo. They are “given to a certain kind of classism that … was in its infancy” (p. 41), and hence still too insecure about their place in the world to be rid of their atavistic tribal impulses.
But it’s more than just emerging market status that makes this society particularly edgy: there’s a subtle undercurrent of cultural arrogance too. While it’s not made explicit, we are led to assume that middle-class San Cristóbalites are generally white, Spanish-speaking Catholics, conscious of race and class, eager to distinguish themselves with a borrowed European high culture “that was particularly seductive and yet nonetheless incomprehensible” (p. 11), and not a little prejudiced against the indigenous Ñeê (who remind them of their origins). With regard to the Ñeê, “regardless of how pitiful, filthy and often virus-ridden they looked, we’d become immune to their situation” (p. 25). They were “poor and illiterate” (p. 25), and “the subtropical climate encourages the magical thinking that their condition is somehow inevitable” (p. 5).
Reading lines like these, it’s hard not to recall nineteenth-century orientalist literature about India or Africa, or accounts from colonial-era administrators, where similar logic was used to justify the poverty and neglect of colonized indigenous populations. In fact, while the unnamed narrator presents as a left-leaning intellectual, his description of his arrival in San Cristóbal gives off the unmistakable whiff of an idealistic young colonial official sent by “the Commission of Indigenous Settlements” (p. 3) to extend his culture’s civilizing ways to the natives, only to find himself “unaccustomed to the subtropical climate” (p. 4), and his posting located in an area of such backwardness as to whet his zeal for his civilizing mission.
Moreover, nestled as it is between a jungle and a river, descriptions of San Cristóbal’s surrounding landscape seem lifted straight out of a Victorian- or Spanish Colonial-era travelogue. The “impenetrable green monster” of a jungle (p. 4), “the dense brown of the river Eré,” “the earth’s brilliant red,” and “the colors flat, vital and insanely bright” (p. 5) are all reminiscent of the exoticism of colonial European accounts of the lush, vivid abundance of the tropics. In fact, the Latinate prose would seem more apposite for footnotes in a gazetteer than for a set of personal recollections, notwithstanding the social and philosophical insights which roll off nearly every page, evoking a colonial tone which indicates that San Cristóbal is a historically colonial settlement now experiencing postcolonial dynamics.
Even more unsettling is the unconscious acknowledgment of the high price of sustaining civilization in the region, from the bloodletting of pre-Columbian American civilizations to the bloodshed of Spanish colonialism. It recognizes not only the blood spilt in the past, but sinisterly foreshadows the blood sacrifice to come, with the river Eré like “a vast river of blood” connecting the past to the present in an unending flow of time, surrounded by “trees in this part of the country whose sap is so dark it’s almost impossible to think of them as plants,” and “a blood that flows and completes things” (p. 7) seeping through the whole landscape, requiring one’s “blood to acclimatize to San Cristóbal … change temperature and succumb to the force of the jungle, of the river” (p. 6). Completing this vampire-like characterization of the land are descriptions of the jungle as “a prison of trees” (p. 82), and as a primeval entity “that devours everything, an enormous, thirsty, mottled, stifling, powerful expanse in which the strong are sustained by the weak, the great steal the light from the small and only the microscopic and diminutive can stagger giants” (p. 79), underscoring the alienness of the landscape and imbuing it with a malevolence that presages hostility to the children.
Out of this jungle, which “crept into the city again and again, as though awaiting the slightest opportunity to restake its territory” (p. 113), emerge the thirty-two children, straight into a community steeped in the culture of a frontier colony. They have “no clear leader” (p. 38), display “the same pre-verbal intelligence as insects” (p. 13), and sound like “trilling birds” filled with “the secret to joy” (p. 40). They speak an “unintelligible language” (p. 157) stemming “less from the need to communicate than the need to play” (p. 51), embody “joy and freedom” (p. 38), move with the coordination of “a starling murmuration” (p. 15), and reflect the “creativity, chaos and multiplication” (p. 51) of the jungle to serve as a foil to the restrained, rules-based order of the city-dwellers.
In response to an incident of police brutality, the tribe responds like an angry beehive, initiating an attack on a supermarket where knife-wielding children with “insect faces” (p. 69) gleefully stab, slash, and disembowel pensioners in a “glut of euphoria and ineptitude” (p. 68). The response is predictable. “The city became a madhouse, overrun by journalists … the streets filled with reporters and cameras, and a mysterious urge to be in the limelight overtook several of the actual witnesses ...” (p. 73). A veritable cottage industry springs up overnight “with experts on childhood mendicancy and apostles of common sense” (p. 18) thronging the media, journalists, and intellectuals weighing in with their theories, populist politicians calling for sweeping security measures, and all manner of frauds worming their way out of the woodwork to capitalize on the situation.
As the city’s children, drawn to the tribe’s radical freedom, begin deserting their homes to join its ranks, public aggravation leads to unrest and rioting, and city authorities quickly swing into action. The tribe is suitably otherized, and likened to “parasites … that appeared weak but were capable of destroying what had been the patient work of centuries” (p. 79) as a justification for police action. Our unnamed narrator, whose propensity for Machiavellianism within the machine politics of the city makes him as unpleasant as he is unreliable, convinces the populist buffoon of a mayor and his craven coterie of yes-men to approve an expedition to capture the children, and place them in detention centers run by the newly constituted “Rehabilitation Board” (p. 102). A single twelve-year-old child is captured and tortured to reveal that the children live in the sewers beneath the city, whereupon another manhunt is launched.
While we are told in the first line of the novel that the thirty-two children will die, Barba’s singular achievement is to turn their messy end into a transcendent, Christ-like martyrdom that leaves the city reeling with guilt and yearning for redemption even years afterwards. When their “strange and careful republic” (p. 179) at the heart of the city’s sewer system is discovered, what onlookers find striking is the children’s ingenious use of glass litter to “decorate their walls with … light” (p. 176), illuminate their world with the limited light from the city above, and construct a “cathedral of light … designed in completely democratic fashion” (p. 177). In those dark sewers, a “luminous decor” similar to the “cave paintings dating back to the dawn of human consciousness” has been built “with diligence and pleasure” (p. 176), which our narrator cites as evidence that the children, and by extension the jungle, were “paving the way for a new civilization … a civilization unlike the one we defend with such unfathomable passion” (p. 78) to emerge from literally beneath the existing one.
Alas, this is the crux of the matter, for the malleable, palimpsestic quality of civilization actually arises from its parasitic nature. Most civilizations do not arise in isolation, but usually from the remains of earlier civilizations, supplanting, absorbing, or digesting their legacies and recombining their remains to reconstitute themselves anew. A few adapt and absorb diversity in response to challenge and change, but most civilizations take the route of erasing or overwriting their antecedents. Just as the circle of life is actually a cycle of mortality, the cycle of civilization is no less one of carrion and regurgitation, with each subsequent civilization digesting the ones which preceded it, and repurposing their remains as spolia.
Contrary to the beliefs of the San Cristóbalites, their civilization is merely another link in a chain, another moment in an unending dance of disruption and replacement. In the manner of their Spanish antecedents, who replaced the pre-Columbian culture they discovered with one derived from Europe, or the early Christians who sought refuge in the catacombs beneath Rome, only to later supplant Roman culture with their own, the thirty-two children are the manifestation of the beginnings of yet another civilizational cycle on its way to supplanting San Cristóbal with something perhaps better suited to the local geography.
The true tragedy here is the failure of the city’s administration to recognize that the process of civilizational change, while inevitable, is not necessarily a zero-sum game. The rise of one civilization doesn’t have to mean the fall of another; if two civilizations can find a way to engage meaningfully, they can coexist peacefully. The children aren't evil so much as they're misunderstood. Their morality is not Judeo-Christian, but something far simpler (though not simplistic). They aren’t beholden to the morality of the city, with its carefully curated and unspoken cultural norms, but exist apart from it. Had the city recognized it was interacting with an entirely new civilization, not unlike an isolated tribe from the Amazon rainforest, and approached it “more with scientific humility and less with authoritative arrogance” (p. 78) instead of treating its presence as a law-and-order problem, perhaps a middle ground of understanding could have been reached, and a higher synthesis achieved by both.
Suffice to say, A Luminous Republic has much more to offer than what is contained in this review, and is nothing short of an education in its own right. To compare it with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and Brian Moore’s Black Robe would be to rob it of its originality as a novel of ideas. While it presents a cautionary fable about cultural misunderstandings, institutional arrogance, and political intransigence, it contains a kernel of hope that perhaps a way out of our madness can be found through empathy, imagination, and a willingness to reject what we already know (or think we know), and to try again with humility. It's an unsettling book to read for the first time, but over time the unease dissipates and one is left with the feeling of having experienced something numinous, transcendent and, indeed, luminous. A luminosity of the spirit, perhaps.