Saturday, January 2, 2010
‘The Lacuna’ – Novel Gives Vivid View of Trotsky in Exile
by Carl Sack / December 2009
Barbara Kingsolver’s books and essays hold a seminal place in the lexicon of contemporary American literature. Her widely read non-fiction writings, including her most recent, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” are rich with commentary on workers’ struggles, our relationship to nature, and the search for a better world. But while her essays are valuable, her novels are gems, portraying working-class characters, places, and historical events in as vivid and enthralling a style as those of any author alive today. Now Kingsolver has turned her pen to a new subject: Leon Trotsky.
“The Lacuna” (HarperCollins, 2009) is not a study of Trotsky per se. Written like a journal, the story follows a protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, who grows up with his mother in Mexico after she leaves his American father. The mother is shown as a debauched opportunist chasing after powerful oil men and diplomats, allowing herself to be used as a mistress, to her ultimate ironic detriment and tragedy. Harrison himself becomes disillusioned early, as the family is first trapped on an island at the estate of a wealthy tycoon, then later moved to a tiny flat in Mexico City.
Through Harrison’s accounts, we witness a number of important historical events that you won’t find in the average U.S. high school history textbook. The first of these occurs while he and his mother are living on Isla Pixol: the end of the three-year-long Cristero War. This was a rebellion initiated by the Catholic Church against secular reforms enacted by the revolutionary 1917 Constitution, which seized extensive church landholdings and placed restrictions on education and clerical activities of the Church. On June 21, 1929, “the church bells rang all day ... calling back the priests with their gold rings, landholdings, and sovereignty intact.”
After moving to Mexico City, Harrison sees a servant girl carrying a bird cage on her back, accompanying a diminutive but fiery woman: “when she turned, her skirts and silver earrings whirled and her face was very startling, an Azteca queen with ferocious black eyes.” This is none other than Frida Kahlo, artist and wife of “the much-discussed painter” and communist Diego Rivera. After seeing Rivera’s in-progress murals in the National Palace, Harrison resolves to work for him.
There is an interlude in which Harrison is sent to boarding school in Washington, D.C. Aside from picking up some of the gringo culture he has missed out on, he witnesses the bloody massacre of World War I veterans by infantry and tanks under General MacArthur in 1932. In one journal entry, we are treated to a description of the shooting and saber-slicing of unemployed patriots in view of thousands of civil servants.
Following this episode, one of Harrison’s journals is missing—ostensibly burned, we are led to believe, because it contained the details of a sexual affair with a fellow male student. Thus, the next scenes return us to Mexico when Harrison is 19 and once again working full-time for Rivera and Kahlo.
It is here that we meet Lev Davidovich (Leon Trotsky) along with his wife Natalya, personal assistant Van (Jean Van Heijenoort), and several U.S. Trotskyists. From Harrison's vantage point as a cook for the Riveras, we are given a window into the daily life of the Trotskys: their grief as their children and friends are murdered one by one by agents of Stalin, news of the Moscow show trials, the ravenous propaganda of the bourgeois press about “the villain in our midst.” Several journal entries are dedicated to the Commission of Inquiry into the charges against Trotsky organized by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party and chaired by John Dewey. There is even treatment of the surrealist art movement. This is all in the historical record, but written as richly poetic memoir.
Eventually, Harrison's penchant for record-keeping is discovered by Lev, and he is promoted to the position of the Commissar's personal secretary. But the pressures of life with the Riveras pile up, first in the form of an affair between Frida and Lev, and eventually resulting in a split between Lev and Diego that prompts the former to move six blocks away, to the final Casa Trotsky. Harrison moves too, continuing to afford us an exciting window into historical characters and events, culminating in the first nearly-successful attempt on Trotsky's life by Stalinist agents including Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. Finally, there is the vivid and tragic scene in which Ramon Mercador, under the alias Jacson Mornard and unsuspected of ill will by the house residents, buries an ice ax in Trotsky's skull.
After Trotsky, the setting transitions abruptly to Asheville, North Carolina, in the author's own neck of the woods. The link is a shipment of Frida's paintings that Harrison is sent to steward to New York, along with a lengthy interjection by the “archivist” Violet Brown, ostensibly the postmortem editor of Harrison's journals, explaining how he came to reinvent his life in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The book becomes a bit more tedious here, largely composed of letters and both historical and fictional news articles, woven together to advance the story through evolving U.S. political culture of the 1940s. The plot largely hinges around the racist propaganda and rumor-mongering of the press, a theme being that they hold much responsibility for approving the civil rights violations that start with Japanese internment and are to culminate in the 1950s Red scare of McCarthyism. One can draw parallels to current bourgeois news media.
Unfortunately, Kingsolver's political misunderstandings show through in a confused treatment of the Trotskyist position on World War II. SWP-led antiwar demonstrations are mentioned, but Harrison ponders of Lev, “he would abhor Roosevelt's friendly partnership with Marshal Stalin. ... But wouldn't he agree with the president, that sacrifice must be made toward the ideal?”
The Fourth International, the worldwide socialist federation that was Trotsky's lasting legacy, never gave support to the imperialist powers of the U.S. or Britain in World War II despite their alliance with the USSR, but rather maintained its position for the overthrow of those powers by the working class.
Harrison himself manages to stay out of the war (unfit to serve due to “sexual deviance”), and after a stint in civilian service, begins his career as a popular fiction writer. But even through good fortune we see the inevitable coming, as the noose of post-war anticommunism draws tighter around him, eventually costing him nearly everything.
A major importance of Kingsolver’s new work is that it will expose millions of mainstream readers to a view of history with which few are familiar. “The Lacuna,” though a fictional story, succeeds in correcting the dogma equating communism with Stalinism. Rescuing Lev Davidovich from anonymity seems to almost happen accidentally, a part of a larger drama that is life and art.
“The Lacuna” deserves prominent consideration in the resurgent discussion around Trotsky’s life and work currently taking place. It also deserves reading simply as a beautiful and intimate adventure story.