By Zeb Larson
Paco Roca’s The Lighthouse is an interesting and quirky read, perfect for a Saturday afternoon where you don’t need a heavy story but could do with something that’s still thought-provoking. It’s a quick read but one that still manages to pack a fair bit of material into just over sixty pages: war, peace, dreams, and the collision of all three of those. It’s a worthwhile read, in part because it subverts some of the expectations you might have going into a story like this. Set during the Spanish Civil War, Francisco is a young Republican soldier on the run from the Fascists. After a particularly narrow escape, he takes shelter in an isolated lighthouse with an eccentric keeper, Telmo. Facing the defeat of his side and the question of what comes next, Francisco instead begins looking at life in a new way.
Going into this story, you might expect that a story about the Spanish Civil War will be a political one, given its depiction in other media in the last twenty years or so (Pan’s Labyrinth managed to fit some subtext in on this subject), but this isn’t a political tract in the way you might expect it to be. Francisco is a Republican, but in his own telling his reasons for joining weren’t passion or belief in the noble ideals of democracy. No, he just wanted to impress a pretty girl by making a steady wage. The Fascists aren’t depicted sympathetically or even neutrally, but this isn’t another requiem for the Republican lost cause.
At that level, this isn’t a particularly political story. But Roca doesn’t need to delve into the consequences and tragedies of the war beyond showing Francisco’s circumstances (the facts do speak for themselves, after all). The central drama of this story is the question of what comes next, and here lies its real political significance. Much of the story is about Francisco and Telmo working together to build a boat to go somewhere else, not even as refugees, but simply for the sake of adventure. The suggestion is that we need dreams, stories, and hopes all the more in times of defeat and ugliness because they’re a reason to keep going when everything else is crumbling all around you.
That could seem like an endorsement of escapism, which isn’t necessarily a good thing in terms of adversity either; is it useful to shut out the rest of the world to pretend that everything’s ok? But Roca doesn’t pretend that either of these men can ignore the world around them for forever. The lighthouse is a beautiful and isolated place, but it’s not an island, and the Fascists will catch up to them in some form or another. The point is that when we have to come back to the hard truths of life, dreams and hopes can at least give us some reason to keep going. Francisco has a reason to keep going and not simply yield, which to me felt like the real moral of this story.
Subtle politics aside, the story is charming to read. The art style and aesthetic is straight out of the period. I’ve always had a particular affinity for lighthouses and the sea and Roca has created one that lives up to my own fantasies about them. Stories about this particular subject are another weakness of mine, but I liked the focus on an individual during the war rather than the war itself. It’s useful to remember that conflicts involve hundreds of thousands of people living out their own little stories, and their stories are important too.
The only issue I found with the story has to do with its pacing. Roca tells this the story very briskly, partly because he doesn’t have the luxury of telling this in 180 pages. Part of the atmosphere and charm of Telmo’s lighthouse is supposed to be the fact that it’s cut off to a certain extent from the rest of the world; the pace of modern life and the war are supposed to be gone here. But we don’t have any time to luxuriate at the lighthouse before both men are building the boat and moving ahead. Allowing Francisco a period of languor to enjoy after the nightmare he’s been through would help this place to seem more peaceful, a theme that’s otherwise well-developed throughout the story. Just a place to exist without struggle is a profound kind of peace, but Francisco doesn’t have that luxury.
But I’m picking at a flea with this critique. If it moves a little too quickly, I must once again note that Roca is never jumping ahead of himself in the story. Nothing is out of place, and when events happen at least the pace they occur feels logical. I look forward to parsing Mr. Roca’s work elsewhere.