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The Lacuna

1 October 2018

The LacunaThe Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A historical novel; a long read but a good one.

This is Barbara Kingsolver‘s attempt at an epistolary novel, or at least one made up of the letters and diaries of the protagonist, Harrison William Shepherd, who was born in the USA in 1916 of an American father and a Mexican mother. After an acrimonious divorce his mother takes him to Mexico at the age of 12, where she becomes the paramour of a rich man who lives on an island, and her son learns how to cook from the servants.

Rivera house in Mexico City

When he is older his culinary skills come in handy when he uses them to mix plaster of just the right consistency for the fresco painter Diego Rivera, and eventually he becomes a cook in the Rivera household, where the wife Frida is also an artist, using oil and canvas. The story here meshes with real history, as the Riveras were real artists, and one can find a picture of their Bauhaus-style house, as described in the book, on the Web.

Later still Lev Trotsky comes to stay with the Riveras, fearful of being assassinated by Stalin, and writing about democratic socialism, which he believes Stalin had betrayed. And at this point I must say the book gave me a rather different picture of Trotsky and “the Trots” from the one that had been conveyed to me in my youth by more orthodox communists who had followed the Stalinist line. “Left-wing communism, an infantile disease” as Lenin had described it. Perhaps I need to learn more.

Lev Trotsky

Harrison Shepherd becomes cook and amanuensis to Trotsky as well, and later returns to the USA, where he settles almost by accident in a small town in North Carolina. There he starts to write novels about Mexico, and eventually comes under investigation in the anticommunist witch hunts that started as the Cold War got under way.

Even factual historical writing carried “the burden of the present”, and perhaps fictional writing does even more so. At one point Kingsolver writes, of the inmates of the Rivera house, that with all the security measures to protect Lenin from Stalinists, that they felt like inmates, by which I think she meant that they felt like prisoners, but I’m pretty sure that back in the 1940s no one thought that “inmates” referred exclusively to prisoners, rather than simply to the occupants of the house.

There are, however other things than seem to have echoes in our times too:This was written about the Cold War in 1940, but seems equally applicable to the Russophobia bring promoted by the Western media 70 years later:

“What do you think is frightening them?”
“Hearst news. If the paper says everyone this season will be wearing a Lilly Dache hat that resembles an armadillo, they will purchase the hat. If Hearst tells them to be afraid of Russia, they will buy that too.”

And go back 50 years, and this piece of dialogue, from an FBI man, could just as easily have been spoken by a South African SB man, which makes it read pretty authentically:

“Whenever I hear this kind of thing,” he said, “a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, ‘How can he be such a sap? Now I can be sure that man is a Red.’ A word to the wise, Mr Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner.”

So this is a historical novel with a lot of real history thrown in, and one which I think gives a real feel for the times.

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