Review by Frank Plowright
Francisco Guirado is eighteen, a freedom fighter in the final days of the Spanish Civil War, told of his probable execution should he be captured by the fascists, and only just avoiding that fate. Shot in the process, he struggles on via instinct, eventually collapsing in the sea where he’s rescued by lighthouse keeper Telmo. He’s a friendly character, drawing people out by chatting away to whoever he comes across in his lonely trade, a family service. Except since war broke out the authorities have other matters to attend to, so the lighthouse no longer works, lacking a bulb. Telmo survives by fishing and the occasional shipwreck cargo that washes up on his shore. The day Francisco arrives is marked by good fortune when a crate of red wine drifts to land.
In the two short years of his adult life Francisco has seen a lot, and has developed an extremely heavy conscience despite being a fundamentally decent lad who had no real idea what he was letting himself in for when he signed up for the army to impress a girl. Paco Roca’s approach is one of slow disclosure in a matter of fact manner, just one person’s conversation with another, and this method reinforces the horrors of the ordinary man as we hear about Francisco’s experiences.
Telmo is equally disenchanted with war, and regales Francisco with tales of the land his father told him about, Laputa, an eccentric island located somewhere over the horizon, defined by freedom, a concept he sells Francisco. Is Telmo’s dream of Laputa genuine, or providing reinvigoration and keeping Francisco’s mind off his recent past? It’s certainly an effective motivator, as Francisco willingly commits to completing the boat Telmo has been constructing from driftwood for years. Of course, many readers will catch the reference to Gulliver’s Travels, and to them Telmo’s methods will be more transparent, but not knowing this provides an equally absorbing read.
Despite the starting point being war, The Lighthouse is a serene and melancholy story of bonding and hope, with the ultimate message emphasising the importance of having a dream, in the final pages relating a story very similar to The Alchemist just to underline this. Roca’s art is elegant simplicity, telling us about both characters beyond their dialogue. This is often via silent panels in which not much seems to be happening, but these sequences are very important for both the pacing of the story, which is never hurried, and for the tone, so the simplicity disguises a complexity. It’s an excellent, and well paced reflection of humanity at its best.
Not enough of Roca’s back catalogue has been translated into English. He has a surprisingly broad range, The Lighthouse being a complete contrast to the sentimental comedy of Wrinkles, but he frequently looks back to Franco era Spain for inspiration and as here, background.