Review: The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen, translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni
When I began reading this novel, my Kindle First selection for March, it immediately evoked for me The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (also a translation, now that I think of it). There are similarities in the opening pages of the story: a young child lives hidden underground, with family, only dimly understanding all the reasons why they must stay hidden.
And yet, as I continued to read, the differences between the two books gradually overwhelmed the similarities. For one thing, the eleven-year-old boy of Paul Pen's story was born in his cellar.
With Anne Frank, we know the reasons her family stays hidden; for Pen's boy (who is unnamed throughout the tale), it is a mystery. The boy has no memory of life other than lived in a cellar. His Mom and Dad, his Grandma, his sister and brother, are all the family he knows—indeed, they are all of humanity for him. An occasional footstep overhead is interpreted as the sinister "Cricket Man" whom the boy has been taught to fear.
Despite his hidden existence, the boy lives a carefree life between visits from the Cricket Man. He nurses a cactus, pushing it across the floor so it sits in the single beam of sunlight that shines into the cellar. He studies his book of insects, especially the fireflies, whose ability to make their own light has captivated his imagination. He observes, but does not question, the many mysteries that surround him: Where does the family's food and other supplies come from? Why is there always an extra place set at the table, with food for a seventh person served at each meal and then thrown away? Who is the father of his pregnant sister's child? Is the door to the outside locked, or could he really leave whenever he wanted to go?
We develop our own questions as well, as we read. Why does the boy's father insist so ferociously that his sister must wear her mask? No other member of the family, all of whom bear hideous scars from a fire, is required to hide their damaged faces. What really happened to the chick the boy somehow managed to hatch from an egg?
And where do the fireflies come from? The fireflies start to appear just as the boy has begun to question his life underground. He collects them carefully, hoarding them in a jar against the day when he will need light in his darkness. Just as carefully, he gleans answers to his questions—but are they truthful answers? He has no way to judge.
The solutions to these mysteries will horrify as much as they satisfy. As with Anne Frank, the boy serves as a foil to a terrible reality. At least for this boy, we can delight in the fictional nature of the horror, and be satisfied that the innocent may eventually go free to live in the light.
- You will probably not realize in reading it that this novel was translated from Spanish. Settings, syntax, and details are perfectly translated (or perfectly conceived in the original language) so that there are no ethnic clues. It helps that there are no proper names used anywhere in the story.
- For maximum enjoyment, put aside any awareness of how fireflies actually behave in the real world. It is essential to approach them as the child himself does: as wonderful beings that produce their own light.