Chaos for what it is
A Luminous Republic, Andrés Barba (translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman) Granta, 2020, 208 pp, £12.99 (hardback)
Such Small Hands, Andrés Barba (translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman) Portobello Books, 2017, 112 pp, £9.99 (hardback)
Andrés Barba’s ghostly novella Such Small Hands met with resounding critical success in its native Spain, as well as in the UK and US with English translations by Lisa Dillman, in 2017. Darkly compelling, it was lauded for its unsettling plot and baroque descriptions, blending conventions from Greek tragedy and Gothic literature.
Barba challenged Gothic fiction to work harder – both aesthetically and morally – and he succeeded in delivering in full force. His sexually charged prose reworks tropes of the genre, pushing depictions of feminine bodies beyond misogynistic, binary distinctions of ‘purity’ or ‘evil’ – further than, say, the inverted fables of Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, where female narrators usurp their (often male) aggressors. Children, early on, became the subject of his fiction. His young characters take the sometimes-shocking possibilities of the human condition to their adult extremes, seemingly without plan or schemata, but simply through play.
Readers of Such Small Hands follow seven-year old Marina as she moves to an orphanage after surviving a fatal car crash which killed her parents and ripped her torso in two. The opening paragraphs quickly establish Barba’s premise (‘the raw flesh, the gaping flesh, sliced so cleanly’), and what follows is as much about emotional severance as it is literal, physical disembodiment. Marina’s fragile body is under constant scrutiny from the other girls, often held in comparison to the quiet obedience of her only possession: a toy doll. She is seen in the showers – separate, stoic and serious – washing the scar across her midriff, privately showcasing the marks of vulnerability.
To wrest control from her voyeurs, Marina initiates a sexually charged game. Selecting one girl of her choosing every night, she invites the others to do whatever they please to the body. It quickly moves from gentle nudges to pushing, kicking and kissing, until daybreak. The game continues as, one by one, victims turn perpetrators. Patterns of mock-leadership and power struggle remind us of Lord of the Flies. But Barba’s children do not simply mimic authority like Golding’s ‘biguns’ and ‘littluns’ – neither do they ultimately revert from nor show remorse for their warped Sadism. Marina, both in life and in death, teaches the girls that bodies are simply flesh and bone, and there’s power in understanding this material fact. It’s Nietzschean and complex. We’re invited to tiptoe into the dark, watching over the orphans as this knowledge finally takes over and Marina is pulled apart limb from limb, word by word:
Someone must have pushed her because we all fell to the floor, on top of her. Someone must have held her down so she’d stop kicking and be still, stiller than any other doll had ever been, so still that we had to get our breath back.
After intermittent passages from the girls as a collective (the ghosts of the author’s Greek tragedy-like chorus floating gently above), Barba reprises their voices one last time, in a way that’s both callous and childish, as they move inside and outside of their bodies in exodus. It’s a fitting end to Barba’s trail of dismembered images – Marina’s nearly being ripped in two, her severing caterpillars – a trail almost too pristinely arranged. The characters seem to have no real autonomy; they feel like actors in a kind of prophetic theatre where their destinies are already decided. If Carter turned the tables, Barba comes in to lay the silverware.
Even still, Such Small Hands is enjoyed for its tautness and brevity. It achieves incredible complexity over 100 pages. The shorter form, of course, isn’t a new development in the genre; the novella has been a staple of Gothic literature since the nineteenth century. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost (1887) also come in under 100 pages. But there is perhaps more to read into Barba’s decision to keep the tale short – or indeed small. As the title suggests, Such Small Hands is preoccupied with size, proportion and minutiae. ‘Small hands’ take over bodies in bouts of pre-sexual maturity and curiosity – the same hands that grip dolls for comfort search for answers.
The orphans, though small in stature, are capable of colossal misdeeds. Their actions – bold and complex as they are – succumb to desires that push gameplay beyond their years. The girls recognise trauma and seek to erase it from their lives: ‘We played with her all night, so still. Then, overflowing with gratitude and joy, we sat around her and slowly kissed her lips one by one, as if we were eating.’ Barba’s contemporary influences ring true here: Clarice Lispector and Mary Flannery O’Connor (two from a long list of authors interested magical, grotesque transformations of the feminine body, and in the rejection of its perceived limitations).
Fast-forward to 2020: Barba’s short novel A Luminous Republic achieves more than Such Small Hands could in the limited space of a novella. Barba’s fifth text in translation builds on the author’s interest in play, psychology and ritual. He expands his themes by taking them into a larger, political arena ruled by colonialism and deforestation. A diverse set of characters, locations and ages ensures that his investigation into moral boundaries is distorted and abstracted further in the depths of the forest and the sewer network. New factors are added: chains of command, governmental power play and the aggression of nationhood.
Set in the subtropical town of San Cristóbal bordered by jungle and river, Barba moves between civilisation and wilderness. Our unnamed protagonist recounts the story retrospectively, as a kind of confessional, many years later: ‘When I’m asked about the thirty-two children who lost their lives in San Cristóbal, my response varies depending on the age of my interlocutor.’ He begins the tale as a newly married civil servant, moving for work after having been appointed the task of integrating the indigenous Ñeê community into San Cristóbal. But when he arrives, he soon finds that there’s something more pressing than his social integration programme. A group of 32 unidentified children, aged between 9 and 13, have begun visiting the city and performing increasingly severe criminal acts before disappearing into the darkness. Given the broader scope in length and setting, A Luminous Republic explores society’s fragile borders and the definitions we use to divide ourselves: childhood and adulthood; cruelty and kindness; urbanity and nature; us and them.
There are many parallels between Such Small Hands and A Luminous Republic. Both are rooted in omens, begin with a car crash and end with a forewarned, yet nonetheless shocking, tragedy involving a group of ‘outsider’ children. But in the last three years, it seems Barba’s unsettling style of writing has achieved new levels of complexity and authenticity. Luminous Republic pushes the boundaries of fear once again, not as a ghost story, but as a tale that induces terror through the uncanny.
Barba’s language mirrors the nationalistic rhetoric of our world. His plot reflects a growing sense of anxiety towards mass separation from otherness; written so convincingly that each word feels like an insect crawling up your arm, with movements so slight, you almost don’t notice the poison being administered:
. . . the kids “trickled in” to the city and at first blended in with the Ñeê children we were used to, the ones selling wild orchids and limes at traffic lights. Certain species of termite have the ability to change their appearance temporarily, taking on the characteristics of other species in order to penetrate a foreign environment and then reverting to their true appearance once they’ve become established.
The town of San Cristóbal is a Petri dish of thriving hysteria. The townspeople become increasingly scared of the 32 children, not necessarily because they attack and steal from the other civilians – eventually killing two of them in a supermarket dash – but because they represent a shock to the system: something even more ‘foreign’ than the Ñeê people they’ve grown ‘accustomed’ to. The children live seemingly irrational but happy lives, without parental guidance or care. They have no desire to be ‘rescued’ and integrated back into society – a concept that’s beyond the comprehension of our narrator.
The 32 speak in a language that no-one can fully translate. Their age group isn’t clearly defined. They wrestle and play like children but scheme and copulate like adults. They appear to have no rules nor common leader. They live outside civilisation, and therefore aren’t shown the same lenience or kindness as the San Cristóbal children. Barba taps into the terror of group mentalities and goes one step further than human-to-human interaction. He transforms those perceived as outsiders into monsters, ostensibly through the power of spoken word, hearsay and newspaper headlines. ‘It’s funny,’ writes Barba, ‘the way certain words possess a viciousness that can linger for years, biding its time, before seeking us out again, as intense as when we first spoke them.’
A race to catch the 32 begins and the whole town becomes obsessed with the hunt. While the imperative to find and reprimand the children grows, another fear encroaches: what might happen when they catch them. Adults begin to struggle saying the word ‘child’ for fear of what it might invoke – like demons in the night. Facts move to fiction and reportage to mythology. The 32 are thought to be hiding in the jungle, because the wilderness – like their pre-pubescent bodies – cannot be tamed or reasoned with, and who knows what powers it might possess?
Barba’s narrative is driven by the twin terrors of colonialism and imperialism, as men strive to conquer uncivilised wilderness, metre by metre, fulfilling their own agenda in search of the 32. Familiar real-world terror creeps in again. We are reminded of Bolsonaro moving aggressively to open the Amazon rainforest to commercial development. Or Trump rolling back laws that protect Native American territories. A signature cataclysmic ending leaves readers asking questions about accountability. Which acts of violence are worse: pre-meditated acts or those enacted spontaneously without reason? At what age do we accept responsibility? At what point do we stop identifying commonalities between people and find something entirely other?
Parallels to Lord of the Flies and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness crop up more than once in A Luminous Republic – but don’t be tempted to let your mind wander to the abandoned boys, or to Charles Marlowe and the tributaries of the Congo. Barba has achieved something resonant and very much contemporary set in subtropical South America. In this sharp, uncanny world, all parties suffer when distinctions are made between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Even our narrator teeters on the edge of complacency, having both initiated and experienced acts of brutality.
As with Such Small Hands, readers of A Luminous Republic are asked to survey the beauty, chaos and indifference of conflict. The focus, for Barba, isn’t in the tragic ending, which we all know is coming, nor in any kind of pathetic fallacy or Gothic convention. The nucleus of the story is in the examination of society and its varying levels of destruction as the narrative unfolds – to appreciate the complexities of violence as a chain of accountability and decision-making. In taking gratification out of the ending, with readers expecting the 32 deaths from the beginning, Barba leaves us to muddle through the chaos for what it is. We don’t ask ‘how did we get here?’ or ‘who’s to blame?’ but ‘does it matter?’ This is fiction at its most chilling and formidable. A Luminous Republic is truly frightening.
Words by Kate Simpson.
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