Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful storyteller. Best known for her 1998 novel, The Poisonwood Bible, the American author has also written several other novels as well as books of poetry, essays and creative nonfiction.
So, when I found myself with a birthday gift certificate for Amazon, I included her latest novel, The Lacuna, in my purchase. I had heard nothing about the book but was pretty sure I’d enjoy it. But little did I realize just how much I would enjoy it. Because prominent in the novel are real-life characters I already know quite a bit about — Mexican artists Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and Diego Rivera (1886-1957), and Russian revolutionary Lev Davidovich Trotsky (1879-1940) who was exiled from Russia in 1929 by political rival Joseph Stalin and subsequently murdered in Mexico by a Stalinist agent.
Told mainly through the diary notebooks of fictional character, Harrison Shepherd, the story takes place in various parts of the United States and Mexico in the years spanning 1929 though 1950. And, although the book is mainly character-driven, the dramatic economic and political events of this period are highlighted throughout — the economic depression of the 1930s followed by the Second World War and finally the early years in the US of anti-communist witchhunts.
From his youth, Shepherd has a passion and talent for writing and eventually becomes a successful but reclusive novelist living in small town Virginia. After an unusual youth with an eccentric, self-absorbed mother, Shepherd finds employment in his late teens and early twenties in the Rivera-Kahlo household. Working variously and sometimes simultaneously as plaster mixer, cook, typist, translator and driver, Shepherd’s diary provides keen observations of Rivera and Kahlo, then Trotsky and Natalya, along with the various friends, comrades, bodyguards and servants.
Here’s some of the dialogue between the diarist and Frido Kahlo on their second meeting:
“And you, skinny creature. What’s your name?”
“It didn’t please you much the first time. When you wrote it in the ledger.”
“Oh shit, that’s right, you’re that one. The unpronounceable.” She seemed to wake up, sitting up straighter. When she looks at you, her eyes are like lit coals inside the hearth of those shocking eyebrows. “What does Diego call you?”
“Muchacho, mix some more plaster! Muchacho, bring me my lunch!“
She laughed. It was a good impersonation: it’s all in his eyes, the way he opens them wide and leans forward when he bellows. …
[And then a few minutes later in this conversation] … “Who are you? Say it again, I swear I’ll try to remember.”
“Christ, I’m not going to call you that. Diego calls you what, again?”
“The crew is very unkind to the plaster boys. As you know. But honestly, ZARrizZON! It sounds like strangling. What kind of a name is that?”
“It was a president, senora.”
“Of what? Some place where they don’t have any oxygen?”
“Of the United States.”
“As I said.” … “You’re from Gringolandia, then,” she pressed.
“Born there, yes, senora. A half-citizen on my father’s side. My mother sent me back there to be educated, but it didn’t work.”
With the examination ending now, a quick last grasp at redemption: “The school kicked me out.”
It was a good guess: now even the ribbons in her hair curled forward to hear more. All the dolls stared. “Kicked out for what, chulito?”
“For a scandal.”
“Another student and?” Her hair practically standing on end.
“Conducta insolita. Irregular conduct. Senora, no more can be said. You would have to put me out on the street if you knew the rest.”
She crossed her arms and smiled. “That’s what I’m going to call you: Insolito.”
The examination: passed, with highest honors. The prize: a possible ally in this impossible house.”
Starting as servant, Shepherd is drawn cautiously into a friendship with Kahlo. Later he also develops a special relationship with Trotsky. When Lev and Natalya move from the Diego household, Shepherd accompanies them as typist and translator. Here’s another quote from the book:
“Lorenzo’s mother came this week from the country, bringing one more pair of eager eyes for guard duty: her daughter’s boy, Alejandro. Also, two pairs of rabbits and some checkered hens. Lev is as happy as a lad with his new livestock. The rabbits now have hutches near the entry gate, but Lev says the chickens are “emancipated travelers,” free to roam the courtyard. …
The chickens are not the only emancipated ones here. Lev allows writings of any kind. While he himself works tirelessly on Lenin’s biography and a dozen political articles at once, he confessed that really no book can beat a good novel. He wishes he could write one himself.
What a strange discovery. He came in the office, late this evening to look for a dictionary, surprised to find one of his assistants still banging at a typewriter. “Young Shepherd! What business could keep you so late in headquarters?” Headquarters of the Fourth International is his name for the big office next to the dining room. …
“I’m sorry, sir.” Gather up the pages quick, put them in a folder. No confession unless forced. “It’s nothing that will liberate the people.”
He waited for more, standing wide-eyed at the doorsill in his shirt and tie. His white hair stood on end from a long day’s work. He pulls his hair while he thinks.
“Sir, I’m reluctant to say.”
“Oh, no. Some secret report to the adversary?”
“Please, don’t suggest such an awful thing.”
“What, then? A love letter?”
“It’s more embarrassing than that, sir. A novel.”
The muscles of his face collapsed like a dumpling, all dimples and wrinkled eyes behind the beard and round glasses. Lev’s smile is like no other. He pulled out Natalya’s desk chair and sat in it backward, straddling it like a horse, leaning his elbows on its back and laughing until he nearly wept. “Oh, this is a mechaieh!”
There was nothing to do but wait for a more comprehensible verdict. “I’ve been worrying where it is you go, my son. When your mind is not here.” He clucked his tongue, said some words in Russian. “A novel! Why do you say this won’t liberate anyone? Where does any man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison? To Dostroyevsky! To Gogol!””
Shepherd’s proximity — both physical and emotional — to the beloved great man when he is killed impacts him throughout the rest of his life. Forced to leave Mexico for his own safety after the murder, he continues his friendship with Frida through letters. Occasionally he speculates on what Lev would have said about events as he lives in the US through the hyper-patriotic years of the war and then the early period of the tragic McCarthy era.
Shepherd is not a communist. Nor is he a particularly political person in any conventional sense. He has a refreshing simple honesty in his writings and an often subtly humorous bent in the words he choses to express his observations and views. Although obviously part of the story himself, the diarist rarely uses the first person pronoun, inserting himself by reference to his particular role of the moment. This style adds enormously to the enjoyment of the story and to the reader’s growing affection for this unusual, quiet and modest man. The story is a work of fiction but the author has clearly drawn heavily on well-documented historical facts about the political situation of the times as well as about the real-life figures in the story.
Although Kingsolver’s focus is on the main characters and their relationships to each other, she also provides insights into political events and conditions. When Shepherd spends part of his high school years in a boarding school in Washington, DC, we get a vivid story of the Bonus Army camp set up there during the depression by World War I veterans and their families. Having been promised never-delivered compensation for their war services, desperate families descend on Washington and set up shanty towns. Kingsolver paints an unforgettable picture of the cowardice of then-US president Hoover and the murderous brutality of the army called in to put down the protests and destroy homes, gardens and hope in the process.
Other, often humorous, dialogues also provide insight into the duplicity and unreliability of the mainstream press. As Trotsky notes in a comment to Shepherd: “Getting the newspapers on our side, oh, my boy. That is a career for circus acrobats and worthless politicans.”
The title of the book, The Lacuna, refers to a gap in an underwater rock formation near one Shepherd’s childhood homes in Mexico. The term is used metaphorically in a few places throughout the story but it’s true significance reveals itself only at the very end. I leave you to find that out for yourself.
Sandra Sarner is a member of Toronto New Socialists and an avid reader of novels.