Everybody has probably heard the expression, "history is written by the winners" in reference to the tendency of history to be told from only one side and to represent a particular point of view. While reading history text books which misrepresent events that happened a hundred years ago is upsetting if you know the truth of what happened, can you imagine what it would be like to live through hearing your own history re-written? Even more disturbing would be to find the re-writes based on innuendo, hearsay, and outright lies.
In the late 1940's, and through the 1950's, many citizens of the United States of America discovered their lives had been ruined by others inventing malicious gossip or making false accussations, about them and their histories. If you were named by a friendly witness to the House Committee on Un American Activities as being either a member of, or a former member of, the Communist party, you could easily find yourself facing social ostracism if not jail time. You weren't tried in a court of law, given a chance to defend yourself in front of an impartial judge, or presumed innocent. In fact if you showed up in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities it was generally presumed you were guilty and it was only a matter of figuring out how guilty you were.
Barbara Kingsolver, has never been an author to shy away from controversial subject matter in either her fiction or non-fiction. Her latest novel, The Lacuna published by Harper Collins Canada, is no exception, as she not only takes us behind the scenes of history, she shows us how quickly and easily the truth of events can disappear and lies become reality. Cleverly mixing fictional characters with historical figures and events Kingsolver takes us on a journey that encompasses both Mexico and the United States from the 1930's through the 1950's.
Lacuna is literally the Spanish word meaning hole, or the space between two objects. However it can also be used to refer to a cave or any other sort of gap; like the gap between truth and what the public perceives to be the truth. In The Lacuna Kingsolver traces the history of Harrison Shepherd, the child of a Mexican mother and American father, from his early days living with his mother in Mexico as she's supported by a series of boyfriends, and then back and forth between the United States and Mexico as the winds of history blow him hither and yonder. For once he is set up on his own - after a brief sojourn in an American military as a teenager which ended under a cloud of suspicion - he enters into service as the cook to the mercurial Mexican painter Frida Khalo and her sometime husband, painter Diego Rivera.
The Riveras aren't just artists, they are political artists, and very Communist. We learn about Shepherd's history via the journals he started keeping when he was young living with his mother. At first the Riveras wonder about their young cook, has he been sent to spy on them? What are all these notes he's making to himself? However when Frida finds out he's merely keeping a diary of events for his own amusement and because he loves to write she encourages him to keep at it.
That is until they are to play host to a very special and important guest - the exiled Lev Trotsky. One of the original leaders of the Russian revolution along with Stalin and Lenin, Trotsky had been anointed by Lenin to be his successor. However, Stalin, through lies and quick action, was able to not only supplant Trotsky but also to cast him in the role of traitor to Russia.
Through Shepherd's journals we learn how Trosky comes to live in Mexico with the Riveras and how Shepherd eventually ends up working for Trotsky as cook and translator; a position that will come back to haunt him in later years, and one that puts his life in real danger. For Stalin has ordered that Trotsky be killed, and Communists around the world are eager to carry out his request. Ironically the newspapers in Mexico and the United States refuse to believe that Trotsky is under threat.
When his house is machine gunned he is accused of setting it up himself in order to garner sympathy, even when it's proved that the leader in the Communist party of Mexico had been behind the attack. When Trotsky is finally assassinated, it's Frida who arranges the means for Shepherd to leave the country by having him shepherd some of her artwork from Mexico to New York for an exhibit. As he holds dual citizenship she tells him to stay in America until it is safe. Unfortunately America doesn't turn out to be the safe haven they hoped it to be.
For although he initially enjoys some moderate success as a writer, the America depicted is one scared of its own shadow. First is the round-up of "enemy aliens" - Japanese Americans - during WWII, and then it's the turn of anyone ever suspected of being a Communist, or other sort of un-American activity. Through Shepherd's journals Kingsolver shows how innuendo, hearsay, and lies are used to bring about his downfall, as he details how public opinion is turned against him by the way the hole between the truth and lies is filled in. It's alarming how quickly we see Shepherd go from being a novelist admired by critics and fans alike, to being public enemy number one in the press. People who one moment were fawning over him, can't push him away quick enough.
It's always a dangerous thing for a novelist to bring real people into a story because you can't create them from scratch. They have their own histories and personalities already, and trying to fit them into a work of fiction can rapidly become quite convoluted. However, Kingsolver has handled the inclusion of real people into Shepherd's story beautifully by casting him in the role of historian.
Instead of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Lev Trotsky trying to fit into his fictional life, he finds a place in their history which is not only plausible, but also allows us to see them as real people not just as figures in history. Not only does this bring them to life, but it brings history to life, and fills in the holes - the lacuna - that most history books don't answer. We see how Trotsky was allowed to be made a villain because the West needed Stalin, and in turn how Stalin became the villain when he was no longer needed. The only way that can be accomplished is to ignore history, and according to Kingsolver in this book the United States is a past master at doing just that.
The Lacuna is the story of one man caught up in the tides of history, and the story of how history is created. While beautifully written, with characters who jump off the page they are so alive, it is filled with unpleasant truths about our society. Kingsolver is an intelligent and compassionate writer which allows her to create a story that works both as social commentary and an excellent work of fiction without the former interfering with the latter. You may not like what she has to say, but you can never deny that she says it well and with authority. After reading The Lacuna you may never look at a history book or a newspaper story in quite the same way again, and that's a good thing.
(Originally posted October 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.