Channeling Marc Chagall, and at times strongly recalling Ludwig Bemelmans, Scottish-born cartoonist James Albon (now residing in France) has created one of this year’s most insightful political satires with A Shining Beacon, offering a plot and execution that would do Armando Iannucci proud.
Hearkening back to some of the themes of his previous book Her Bark and Her Bite, but expanding on them considerably, A Shining Beacon takes place in an unnamed country is about to launch a symbol of its pride and prosperity, as envisioned by its leader, an opulent swimming pool. It’s an authoritarian nation, though, a police state that is sucking the life out of its citizenry. In the search for appropriate artwork to accompany the pool in mural form, rural painter Francesca Saxon is tapped because her work displays the most important quality that art can possibly feature in such a society — it’s inoffensive.
Francesca is shuttled to the capital city for meetings with government members about the project and gradually manipulated into an extended and unplanned stay there, during which she will complete the painting. But that’s not so easy because the Ministerial Censorship Committee is able to consistently root out some aspect of every idea she submits as containing subversive elements. And as Francesca waters down her work even further, it seems to become more objectionable and she finds herself a victim trapped in creative limbo, held down by a limitless supply of ineffectual, self-serving bureaucrats who are attempting to not offend the leader of the country.
Eventually, Francesca is assigned her own personal guard, really an extension of the government’s surveillance of her every move, and in her attempts to outsmart her handler and have some time alone, she makes local connections that broaden her personal experience in the capital, which circles back to some unexpected bonding that reveals the hidden nature of the country she’s been coerced to represent in a painting.
The fantasy element of authoritarianism often presents the institutional oppression as merely an inconvenience to your freedom of movement, which makes for some easy victories in the name of casual subversion. But part of authoritarianism is what they keep from you, specifically vigorous opposition, and A Shining Beacon uses the same dynamic and colorful presentation to depict a disruption to Francesca’s adventure down the rabbit hole of dictatorship. It’s not the previously charming cascade of urban mystery, but a burst of violence in which blacks and grays overtake the vibrant color scheme that has dominated the work, and the streets packed with the oppressed are now vacant except for menacing figures with weapons. The darker implications of intrigue are revealed full force in displays of mass violence.
That display also brings us to the common truth that governments, whether authoritarian or democratic or whatever, typically embrace the job of pushing symbolism as a placeholder for actual hope and prosperity. Something that signifies pride in nation equals pride in nation. In reverse, something that signifies revolt equals revolt, and it’s in this war of symbols that so many countries find their most bitter and destructive internal conflicts, often overseen by the body in charge of seeing to the citizens’ well-being. Something that signifies well-being, the idea goes, equals well-being.
In this scenario, every critic becomes an enemy. By extension, every enemy is rejected as a potential valid critic. And in response to that, symbols are required more than ever in the place of real solutions. It’s within this scenario that Francesca finds it practically impossible to create an image that serves any purpose at all, mirroring the sobering idea of no solution being viable in any political situation on any side.
But A Shining Beacon always understands that the important parts of this sprawling and crippling scenario are the personal ones that too often slip through the cracks of wider perception — that is, the actual lives that are affected. As we are introduced to the various players, they are presented in their roles behaving as you’d expect, but as the story moves on, we learn more about them, and that not only reverses all our preconceptions but frames each political stance as an outgrowth of a personal circumstance.
This is something often ignored in radical circles that fails to accept that revolutionary action does not come naturally to most people — their personal circumstance typically frames that as a huge step away from the norm, from safety, and the exact opposite of most people, who just want to stabilize their existence rather than disrupt it. That’s because at any moment, the state or the opposition could turn against your community and the human instinct is create safety within. But that’s a dynamic that sends waves across our groupings, from family settings to entire nations, the idea that we need to protect ourselves from anything outside it.
The bottom line, though, is that the narrative of our experience trying to find clarity in this mess, we don’t control it. Larger forces have a way of crafting it against our personal experience and turning those lives into more symbolism to be used in service of placeholders.
A Shining Beacon embraces the idea of the fantasyland of authoritarianism, of countries under suppression as a kind-of nightmarish wonderland that any Alice could wander through. But to its credit, it doesn’t simplify any of its conclusions, and it draws parallels well beyond the specific mode of government it portrays.
In Francesca, we meet a solid every-person who functions both as a well-wrought character and a stand-in for any of us reading the book. We are all desperately trying to prevent wider forces from infringing on our personal experiences and dictating our outcomes, and Francesca is the embodiment of our predicament. The lesson she offers is that no matter what happens, there’s nothing wrong with knowing for ourselves that we did our best to maintain our own dignity while fighting for our own fate against these forces, regardless of how history might view us.