In an acute translation by Lisa Dillman, [the narrator's] excavation draws on his memories, but also on the documentaries and scholarly studies that sought to explain the freakish episode, giving a gripping metaphysical dimension to the horror story ... In a manner that resembles the startling allegorical inventions of J.G. Ballard, Mr. Barba thrillingly assails the myth of childhood innocence, showing childhood to be both more euphoric and more savage than anyone had imagined—a foreign country that the rational adult mind can never fully comprehend.
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 ... Barba is deftly capable of insights ... 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.
It’s a wonderfully creepy and authentically different example of Modern Weird ... We begin in the lulling, judicious, cerebral yet emotive first-person voice of our unnamed narrator ... Barba’s prose relies heavily on rich and poignant aphorisms from its sensitive and self-doubting narrator ... forceful symbolic language embedded in action...imbues what might otherwise be a simplistic tale of bad-seed kids with haunting and haunted allegorical power ... Ultimately, Barba proclaims, we all move through enforced patterns toward unknown fates.
His story, set in the fictional northern Argentinian city of San Cristóbal, blends the fairytale elements of a Pied-Piper-like fable with the clinical clarity of a crime dossier ... The narrator’s portrayal of himself is just as unusual as his take on the character of his surroundings ... One pleasure of the novel derives from the way its eerie events are addressed in such a matter-of-fact tone ... Statistics are served up; documents are cited; academic studies and an overly sensational film documentary on the thirty-two are referenced. At the same time, allusions to fairy tales and folklore are an essential part of the picture, making the book something much more otherworldly than an issues-centric social critique. Translator Lisa Dillman captures both the docudrama tones and anarchic threats of the story with perfect facility ... a captivating piece of storytelling ... a primer on the manner in which we perceive and create our own realities. Barba is especially beguiling as he ponders the way that playfulness, performance, and social conformity create our sense of who and what we are.
...the novel’s allegorical potential is stifled by a narrator who explains too much. He pores over the societal ramifications of the children’s disappearance so relentlessly he veers into platitudes...or an overlong pontification on the justice system, or a convoluted restating of the obvious ...The book follows in a long tradition of blending the genres of crime thriller and novel of ideas, but in this case what should be hybrid and fluid comes off as formally indecisive. Despite occasional flashes of charm...the narrator’s protracted yet unimaginative reflections slow down the plot, which then comes to rely less on nuance than on formula: Character sketches are swift, the denouement hasty ...The disappointing result may have something to do with the author’s choice of perspective. In his earlier novels...Barba has displayed an enviable gift for conveying, through an inventively abstract style, the strange worlds of childhood and early adolescence. The voice of this novel, precisely translated by Lisa Dillman, may have gained more traction if it had been channeled through one of its many children. As it stands, A Luminous Republic reads too often like a middling civil servant’s report: underlined by good intentions and promising themes, but ultimately unenlightening.
... [a] lyrical, chilling novel ... The civil servant’s guilt and ongoing perplexity over what happened sharpens the impact of Barba’s spare, philosophical narrative. This frightening picture of the strangeness of childhood will endure