Mexico, 1935. Harrison Shepherd is working in the household of famed muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. Sometimes cook, sometimes secretary, Shepherd is always an observer, recording his experiences in diaries and notebooks. When exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky arrives, Shepherd inadvertently casts in his lot with art and revolution and his aim for an invisible life is thwarted forever.
This has been on my to read pile ever since I read Cuban writer, Leonardo Padura’s excellent novel, The Man Who Loved Dogs. The title, The Lacuna alludes to much in the text, the gaps in the reader’s knowledge of Shepherd’s life, his feelings of not fitting in, and of the other characters stories and in part their motivations.
Like a game of football, this is a book of two halves. The latter part I found to be a lot more engaging, partly because it allows the narrator more room to speak, and also as it helps fill in another gap in history that I hadn’t really much knowledge about. Perhaps that is excusable as most of European literature and history is focusing on the rebuilding of the continent after WWII and our own part in the Cold War.
The past is all we know of the future
To begin with I wasn’t overly blown away by the writing, more annoying was that certain themes were alluded to and then outright brought to my attention through the narrator. It would have been much more subtle, if left hanging in the background, for the reader to discover, even if on a second or third read through.
I didn’t get much of a sense of Diego Rivera as a character either, he is fairly peripheral, his wife Frida is more interesting and remains pleasingly enigmatic, although she is seen as faultless, precisely because of her faults. Trotsky is mainly seen as a hero/saint type of figure, lacking some of the complexity that could have made him more interesting, as in Padura’s book. Shepherd himself is detached in this first part, as he struggles to discover his place, and true self.
The second half of the book I really enjoyed. There were many topics explored to recommend it, the themes of the purpose of art, its messages and intellectual honesty; censorship, misinformation and manipulation, and how politics is never viewed with a human element attached. Shepherd’s use of words and understanding of how they can affect people, for good or for ill is a really compelling shift, as is the mirroring of the crazed policies of Stalin and the less familiar (to me) but equally idiotic practises of U.S. Paranoia.
The culture built on Hyperbole
At its heart this is a book about identity – personal, political and national – and finding a place to fit in, to be understood, and the consequences of actions. The power of guilty secrets withheld, and claustrophobia of waiting for the axe to drop is palpable. After a slow start there is much to recommend this book, it has an interesting mix of diary entries and newspaper clips which mostly works but sometimes hinders the flow of the story. There is more to recommend The Lacuna than not, whilst certain aspects and a slow start let it down, it became a much better read as the pages turned.