Wednesday, September 1, 2010

THE LACUNA by Barbara Kingsolver

I love the way Kingsolver inserts her protagonist into the lives of real people in this book. It's not exactly historical fiction, in my opinion, since the main character is fictional, yet real events are more than just a backdrop. A lacuna is a gap or a hole, and Harrison Shepherd leads a fractured life. His father is American, but his Mexican mother follows her lover to Mexico in 1929, and young Harrison is obliged to follow. Then he begins doing odd jobs for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who later offer asylum to Leon Trotsky, the Russian leader who is a target of Stalin's henchmen. Shepherd is the consummate observer, whose diary entries constitute a large portion of the book. After Trotsky's murder, Shepherd flees to the U.S., where he eventually settles in Asheville and writes two very popular novels about the Aztecs and their conflicts with the Spaniards. Then McCarthyism rides in on the heels of WWII, and guess what? Shepherd's Mexican artist friends were communists, and even his novels come under the microscope as possibly being subversive. Kingsolver is not bashful about making some political and social statements here. I'm reminded of the Patriot Act and other signs of paranoia after 9/11. A quote from one of Shepherd's novels in which a soldier describes a leader as an "empty sack" (another lacuna, so to speak) leads to Shepherd's being deemed "un-American." So much for freedom of speech, and fiction being treated as fiction. One of my favorite of Shepherd's musings is when he ponders the possibility of allowing his stenographer, Violet Brown, to move in with him when her rent is increased. He is gay, though closeted, but knows that it would be inappropriate in that day and time. In Mexico, on the other hand, a household can be an amalgamation of unrelated people, and everyone sees it as a perfectly reasonable and practical choice. Kingsolver also makes the point that Mexicans are drawn in two directions because of their mixed blood but tend to downplay their Aztec or Mayan lineage, perhaps because the Spaniards were the victors. I think that, besides giving us a good story, perhaps Kingsolver is warning us that civilization is not necessarily making strides in a more enlightened direction, as we seem doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

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