[4 February 2010]
“People love to read about sins and errors, but not their own.” - Barbara Kingsolver
As a longtime Kingsolver fan, I was bitterly disappointed when the magnificent Poisonwood Bible was overlooked for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. I hugged my signed copy to my chest and waited for her next work, 2001’s Prodigal Summer. The book felt overwritten, what with fecundity springing from each sentence, steaming up the pages.
Then 2007’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, written with biologist husband Steven Hopp and elder daughter Camille Kingsolver, is both an examination into American agribusiness practices and a yearlong diary on the Kingsolver-Hopp family farm. By turns terrifying (omnivores will be forced to confront, once and for all, the cow on their plates), charming (youngest child Lily Kingsolver-Hopp was too young to sign a book contract. This does not stop her from stealing the show), amusing, and deeply edifying, Kingsolver gently lead the reader through the thicket of food politics and how to negotiate them, restoring my faith in the process. Now, a mere two years later, she manages to bring out The Lacuna.
Here is the Concise Oxford Dictionary of a Lacuna: n. Hiatus, blank, missing portion (esp. in ancient Ms., book, etc.) empty part; cavity in bone, tissue, etc.
The Lacuna in question is off the Isla Pixol, where 12-year old Harrison William Shepherd finds himself after his Mexican mother, Salomé, tires of his American bureaucrat father, fleeing dull D.C. for a liaison with the infinitely sexier Enrique, a Mexican in the oil business.
Isla Pixol is so remote that flirty Salomé, distant from the latest fashions, mutters that one must shout three times before Jesus will hear. Young Will, as his mother calls him, is bored senseless until befriending the cook, Leandro. Leandro, taking pity on the child, gives him two gifts: the first is a pair of goggles, so Will might join many fish swimming round Isla Pixol. The second is the ability to cook. Patiently he teaches the boy to make pan dulce, delicate and demanding as a pie crust, to slice fish and peppers and onions, to make rice. These are skills learned that will serve the child well.
Will loves to swim, and notices something odd in the rock formations surrounding Isla Pixol. Depending on the tides, a sort of tunnel may be seen, a deep hole in the rock. He peppers Leandro with questions. The cook, whose brother died while working as a sponge diver, using the very goggles Will holds dear, warns him away. It is a lacuna, too deep, too long to swim through safely. You’ll drown, Leandro threatens.
So Will trains himself to hold his breath. He does his best to ignore the cruel Enrique, who is tiring of pretty Salomé. He begins a diary in a small notebook.
When the relationship with Enrique sours, Salomé takes up with a man Will dubs Mr. Produce-the-Cash, who puts up mistress and son in a tiny Mexico City apartment. Life becomes stifling when the spottily educated Will is forced to attend a school for the mentally deficient, where his intelligence is just as often punished as acknowledged. But the Saturday Melchor marketplace is rich in rewards, including, one amazing day, the sight of a tiny Azteca woman wearing native costume, all huge earrings and fierce eyes, followed by a servant girl lugging a cage of birds: Frida Kahlo.
At this point lesser writers would fall to bits. I shuddered when I heard Kingsolver’s next book was “about Frida Kahlo”, whose horrible overmaketing is matched only by the cult of the Plathians. But Kingsolver pulls it off. Her Frida—and her Diego—fairly leap off the page. By turns arrogant, generous, fractious, and loving, they not only transform William Harrison Shepherd, they accept him. So the young boy who painstakingly learned to make pan dulce is surprisingly expert at mixing Diego’s paints, which must be just so or fail when the big man makes his murals.
Meanwhile, Salomé is alarmed by her son’s academic failures. Romance with Mr. Produce-the-Cash is fading, and something must be done about the teenaged boy. Salomé puts him back on a train to his father, a government employee who has no idea what to do with his American-but-Mexican son. He dumps Will in the Potomac Prep Academy, the sort of hellish boys school one cannot invent. Here the bewildered boy makes lists of American slang terms and wonders at the hostilities building against Herbert Hoover.
The year is 1932; not far from the school is a camp of sorts, filled with soldiers awaiting long overdue payouts. Many are ill, injured from Mustard Gas. Their families are starving. Will learns of them through his one friend, Billy Boorzai, a fellow student who attends Potomac half-time, working the other half to pay his room and board. Billy’s father is out of work; Billy himself is a street-savvy kid who takes Will under his wing, and shows him street markets and Bonus Army encampments.
The boys witness the U.S. Army’s brutal attacks on the Bonus marchers. An innocent abroad, Will is deeply horrified. Homesick and lonely, Will soon learns another difficult truth about himself: he is homosexual. Billy, ever easygoing, happily takes experience where he can find it. Only this experience gets Will put back on a train, where he seeks refuge with the only people he knows will take him: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.
At the oft-split household Will, dubbed Insólito by Frida, cooks the huge amounts of wondrous foods Diego craves. When Diego and Frida grow increasingly political, subscribing to Communist ideals, the bilingual Insólito is often called in to help type up missives. Things grow more complicated when Leon Trotsky and his wife Natalya arrive, hiding out from Stalin’s assassins. Insólito is soon working full-time for Trotsky, secretly nursing his own writing ambitions and a helpless crush on Trotsky’s straight assistant, Van.
In Harrison William Shepherd, aka Insólito, aka Shepherd, Kingsolver has created a complex character. In many respects he is a naïf—essentially parentless, he comprehends little of American cultural mores. Politics confound him; he never once votes. He is more comfortable in Mexico than the United States, yet he is not quite Mexican. He worships Trotsky as a father figure. Appalled by racism and colonialism, he becomes a novelist whose works champion the oppressed. All the while he must hide his homosexuality.
Shepherd is devastated when Trotsky is assassinated. The Mexican police are conducting useless interrogations; Frida, in her inimitable fashion, gets Insólito-now-Shepherd out, back to the United States, where he seeks peaceful anonymity in what he thinks is the perfect American town: Asheville, North Carolina. There he begins a successful writing career mitigated by the unwelcome invasions of fame.
Kingsolver is known as a political writer—I once watched a documentary where she produced a letter from an irate citizen offering to pay her permanent passage anywhere outside the United States. Amusing on one level, in reality such letters, and their writers, are alarming. As Shepherd’s story progresses, we need only substitute “terrorist” for “Red”, secret tribunals for the HUAC hearings, Muslim for Russian, and we are tossed into the present.
We are forced to see how very little has changed from one homophobic era to another; how Anti-Semitism still wends its ancient, hateful way through certain minds. Yet Kingsolver’s gift is to wrap all this in a compelling, exquisitely written story replete with characters in every sense of the word. Thus the politics, rather than feeling forced, are crushingly depressing.
Kingsolver’s gifts are further evidenced in the variety of voices populating the book. Besides the incisive Frida, wise Leandro, and silly Salomé, there is Shepherd’s stenographer, the indomitable Violet Brown. Violet, a product of the Appalachian hills, has “come down” to Asheville to be “modern”. A widow of limited means, she is sharp yet discreet, the perfect secretary for an increasingly famous writer longing to protect his privacy. Hers is a truly foreign English, even to most American ears. Here is Shepherd, marveling at her Appalachian locutions:
“She says ‘Strip-ed’ and learn-ed’ making an extra syllable of the past tense. A sack is a ‘poke.’ ...She says ‘nought’ and ‘nary a one.’”
A child who furtively read National Geographic, Violet is thrilled to join her employer on a research trip to Mexico, appalled when the media casts inappropriate aspersions on their relationship. Kingsolver has much to say about the media and its deliberately misleading attacks, particularly when the intended target refuses to respond to the endless baiting.
As World War II ends and the Iron Curtain falls, Shepherd is drawn inexorably into the sickening HUAC hearings. His early work with Trotsky, his associations with Diego and Frida, his bachelor leanings—none of this bodes well. The story draws itself round this kind man and his wise amanuensis much the way the Nazis moved inexorably closer to Irène Némirovky as she sat in a French field, penning her own downfall in tiny print. Shepherd does much the same, though this being fiction, the end is less killing.
As gripping as The Lacuna is, we are left contemplating our current failings and how closely they resemble the failings of our grandparents. We are forced to concede, with great pain, that history has taught us little. Kingsolver ‘s ability to convey this while weaving a wonderful tale makes her a genius, one many might wish far from American shores, which is, of course, is all the more reason to hope she chooses to stay.