Monday, September 17, 2012

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Try to imagine what might have happened, how history might have rolled out, had Lenin not had a stroke at just the moment when Trotsky was on a train taking him to a resort for a much needed short vacation. Trotsky, a champion of democratic socialism, was next in line to succeed Lenin. Suppose he had not believed Stalin’s lie that there was no need for him to return immediately, since only a small, private service would occur to be followed weeks later by a huge state funeral. Imagine Stalin seizing on the accident of Trotsky’s absence from the state service, which in fact did occur almost immediately, to condemn him as at best disloyal, and at worst treasonous. Trotsky then declared an enemy of the state, a counter-revolutionary, and the ruthless Stalin assuming the mantel of power, liquidating any who dissented and setting the USSR on a course of rigidly centralized government. Suppose it had been otherwise.

In her incredibly ambitious novel, The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver posits the above question as one among many themes. She also takes on McCarthyism, the possibility of getting anything like truth from the press, the political responsibilities of the artist, the love life of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the devastation of World War II, the tyranny of the F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover, and the Mayan and Aztec empires of Mexico. 

I am a great admirer of Kingsolver; I have read almost all of her fiction and much of her non-fiction. I admire the way she weaves her love of biology and environmental issues into her works, her staunch support of feminist issues, her insistence that art is and must be political. That said, I think this particular book suffers from trying to do too much. A skillful editor may have convinced her to cut the sprawling five hundred page novel in half, or better yet, to make it into a series of books—perhaps one about the ancient history of Mexico, another about the relationship between Kahlo, Rivera, and Trotsky, and yet another about the perils of being an artist during the McCarthy era in the U.S. Trying to combine them all into one book obscures her message about the necessity of constantly viewing the present in historical context and, in my opinion, creates a morass stitched together by Kingsolver’s own broad interests rather than by an internal, organic unity. 

Kingsolver is certainly right to remind us that we are too quick to forget the past, too gullible in our trust of the press, too ready to turn a blind eye to the political oppression that has occurred in our recent past and which continues to occur now. However, a colleague of mine and I who decided to read this book together because of our admiration of Kingsolver found ourselves asking why she wrote the book at all, or, at least, why she tried to combine all of these different themes into a single book. There is no doubt that she had a keen interest in Trotsky and the ruthless way in which he was hunted down and killed in Mexico. Her research into the lives of Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera is impressive, as is her knowledge of Mayan and Aztec cultures. Her descriptions of what it must have been like for artists who suffered through the McCarthy witch-hunts is both harrowing and convincing. 

The spokesperson in this novel, Harrison Shepherd, is a young man who straddles two cultures—born in the U.S. of a Mexican mother and American father, but raised for most of his young life in Mexico. He returns to this country after the death of Trotsky, settles into a small town in North Carolina and becomes a well known author who writes epics about the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations of Mexico. Kingsolver uses the device of yet another narrator, Violet Brown, secretary to Sheperd, to give the reader another view of both the writer and the events that shape his life in the U.S.

Perhaps Kingsolver gives us a clue as to why she wrote this book in a conversation that occurs between Shepherd and Violet Brown.
“I have been wondering what your novel will be about,” she said. “Apart from the setting.” 
“I wonder too. I think I want to write about the end of things. How civilizations fall, and what leads up to that. How we’re connected to everything in the past."  
To my shock she said, “Oh, I wouldn’t.” 
“I think the readers won’t like it. We don’t like to see ourselves joined hard to the past. We’d as soon take the scissors and cut every ribbon of that." 
“Then I am sunk. All I ever write about is history.”
“People in gold arm bracelets, though. Nothing that would happen to our own kind. That’s how I reckon people take to it so well.”
“Oh. Then you think it wouldn’t go so well if I set my stories, let’s say, in a concentration camp in Texas or Georgia. One of those places where we sent our citizen Japs and Germans during the war.”
She looked stricken. “No, sir, we would not like to read that. Not even about the other Japanese sinking ships and bombing our coast. That’s over, and we’d just as soon be shed of it.”
“You’d do that? Take scissors and cut off your past?”
“I did already. My family would tell you I went to the town and got above my raisings.”
“Like I said. The magazines tell us we’re special, not like the ones that birthed us. Brand-new. They paint a picture of some old-country rube with a shawl on her head, and make you fear you’ll be like that, unless you buy cake mix and a home freezer. 
“But that sounds lonely, walking around without any ancestors.”
“I don’t say it’s good. It’s just how we be. I hate to say it, but that rube in the shawl is my sister, and I don’t want to be her. I can’t help it.”
Kingsolver does not want us to take scissors to our past; she wants to place us squarely in it. Not just the past in this country, but the past of Cortes and the Aztecs and the even more ancient Mayans. The past of Trotsky and Kahlo and Rivera. The ugliness of war and of political repression. I applaud her insistence on historicity. I admire her politics and her mighty gifts of story-telling, and perhaps you as readers will see more clearly than I just why all of these themes had to be gathered together in one sprawling novel. In this case, I can only say I’m glad to be finished and to move on.

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