The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, 2009
Barbara Kingsolver is one of the best authors in the United States. What this means is that any story she writes, even ones with certain flaws, has more resonance than works by lesser writers. This is also true of certain film directors, like Altman, Kurosawa or Penn, and certain playwrights, like Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner or August Wilson.
A ‘lacuna” means a ‘hole’ or ‘gap.’ The first lacuna we meet is a long dangerous tunnel off the ocean full of water, that surfaces in a possibly ceremonial pool or ‘cenote’ in-land. The lacuna is off Yucatan on Isla Pixol in Mexico in the 1920s. A half-American/half-Mexican boy is taught to roll soft tortilla flour into sweet concoctions called ‘blandas.’ The boy’s name is Harrison William Shepherd, and his seemingly true story is told in the forms of a first-person diary; by a southern friend, Mrs. Brown; by an ‘archivist;’ in letters; through newspaper clippings and in standard, third-person narrative. This gives the story the feel of a documentary reconstruction of Harrison’s life. However, the construction itself makes the story somewhat hard to follow at times. The boy Harrison, later christened ‘Insolito' or 'Soli' by Frida Kahlo, swims into the lacuna, holds his breath for a long time and survives to come out on the other side in the pool.
Harrison moves to Mexico City in 1930 with his gold-digger mother, Salome (!) and, using his blanda-making skills, becomes the plaster-maker for a certain muralist, Diego Rivera. He meets Frida, becomes one of the cooks, and then the typist for the Rivera’s, lives in their odd square box houses, then moves to the Kahlo family’s ‘Blue House’ in Coyoacan. Insolito wants to become a writer, and keeps his diary through this whole time. There, eventually, arrives Lev Trotsky and his wife, Natalya in 1937. Harrison details the time that Trotsky lives in the Blue House, then moves out to another house down the street after a legendary but perhaps inaccurate infidelity is discovered. Shepherd works for Trotsky as a typist too, taking dictation of the various articles and books Trotsky never stops writing. Shepherd accidentally leaves a certain document lying around that leads to a fight between Trotsky and Rivera, and feels very bad about it. He details the first assassination attempt against Trotsky, and then the successful one by a ‘friend’ of friends – the GPU agent Jacson. The death of Trotsky is the second ‘lacuna’ of the book – and in a way, the deepest.
Harrison eventually moves back to the United States. He becomes employed by the US government to preserve paintings from U.S. federal galleries, which are being hidden in Asheville, North Carolina. They are being hidden because of threats of invasion during World War II. He gets the job through the good offices of Rivera’s gallery friends in New York. Frida carefully rescues an early story of his about the conflict between the Aztecs and Cortes from the Mexican police, who had confiscated it at the time of the assassination, and sends it to him. Shepherd finally opens the package, finishes the story, and becomes a famous writer in the United States. He continues writing books that indict militarism and government lying, while hiding the politics in coded fictional stories about Mexico’s history.
Shepherd tries to stay as invisible as possible, and his long-term homosexuality is also kept hidden. He never gives interviews and rarely leaves his house. However, the McCarthy period comes calling. Shepherd is eventually denounced in Asheville as a Communist, being accused of being an associate of notorious people like Rivera, Kahlo and Trotsky. As they say, guilt by association. He becomes a ‘non-person’ in Asheville, except for his older female friend and typist, Mrs. Brown. It is she that gathers his documents and tries to tell the story of his life. Due to the anti-communist hysteria, Shepherd’s last book contract is finally turned down by the publisher after they try to get him to put out the book under someone else’s name. As such, he can no longer earn a living. This is the third lacuna.
Insolito eventually returns to Isla Pixol, intentionally swims into the same ‘lacuna’ again … and drowns.
What I find interesting is that Barbara Kingsolver, a normally liberal or perhaps leftish writer, would retell this iconic story of Kahlo, Rivera and Trotsky, and in not unfriendly terms. In certain ways, the death of Trotsky is the emotional center of the book. Liberals are not known for their friendliness to communists. A similar story was also delineated in the film “Frida,” based on the biography of Frida Kahlo, a flim by director Julie Taymor. Kahlo’s paintings have toured the United States, and were recently shown here at the Walker. (See review below.) As someone who tracks ‘memes’ – ideas that spread through culture – the fact that Trotsky is not seen as some kind of crazed devil by some liberals and progressives, but a martyr to true communism and the working-class, is significant.
Kingsolver does have a long record of progressive political writing. Kingsolver wrote the non-fiction “Holding the Line” about the failed Phelps-Dodge strike of the 80s, especially highlighting the role of women. She is a clear environmentalist, whose non-fiction “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food life” is a contribution to the anti-corporate organic food movement. The excellent “The Poisonwood Bible” is a clever demolition of religious fundamentalism. “The Bean Trees’ is about the violence done to Central American immigrants, along with its sequel, “Pigs in Heaven.” “Animal Dreams” is about fighting pollution in some Arizona orchards.
Kingsolver is a writer who does not tell stories just to ‘entertain’ the middle class –the hallmark of American bourgeois literature. The recent spate of navel-gazing ‘memoirs’ written by dysfunctional individuals and their 12-step miseries is an example of the middle-class attempting to give their writing some significance – and failing. Run with these scissors, fuckhead! Kingsolver writes about the actual events of the wider world – a usually taboo preoccupation in bourgeois fiction, except as a ‘backdrop’ to some more important individual drama. As Kingsolver would point out, we are really more than ourselves.
And I bought this at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 8/14/2010