/ 18 December 2009

Minding the gap — or not

Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel in nine years takes a huge risk in venturing into copiously charted territory. The Lacuna (Faber) moves from the muralists and surrealists of the 1930s in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution to the McCarthyite witch-hunt of artists in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Yet in crossing and recrossing the United States-Mexican border, as novelists such as Carlos Fuentes have done before her, this novel reveals a singular ambition. It probes, with only partial success, the source of the vexed historical relationship between art and politics in the US, as well as the gap between a life lived and a life reported.

The life in question is that of Harrison William Shepherd, variously dubbed Will, Harry and Insolito. Born in Virginia of an American “bean counter” and a Mexican flapper, he is raised in both countries, eventually becoming the celebrated author of American potboilers about the Aztecs.

Shepherd’s story opens engagingly with his boyhood in Isla Pixol, an island south of Veracruz, in a Mexico scented with “jasmine, dog piss, cilantro, lime”. But the story comes to us in the elusive form of diaries and memoirs, letters and press cuttings.

Locked for 50 years in a bank vault until all parties are dead, these fragments were saved by the novelist’s stenographer, Violet Brown, from his despairing wish that they be burned.

Kingsolver meticulously inserts the fictional Shepherd into pivotal moments of recorded history, using both fictional and actual newspaper reports. As a youth in Mexico City, he sees a tiny woman of regal bearing, her hair “braided in a heavy crown”, buying parrots in the street, and becomes a plaster-mixer and cook to her husband, Diego Rivera. Present as Frida Kahlo despairs of Rivera’s infidelities and as Lev Trotsky seeks refuge with the revolutionary artist from Stalin’s assassins, Shepherd becomes Kahlo’s sometime spy and Trotsky’s cook and secretary. As a naive and humble typist he plays a bit part in the rift between Trotsky and Rivera and in Trotsky’s murder. Back in the US, as the Cold War hots up, these associations draw the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Shepherd’s fate seems sealed by the view of a character in one of his novels that “Our leader is an empty sack …” — words that the novelist cannot truthfully deny are his own.

According to Violet, Shepherd was “averse to making himself known. Even when greatly misunderstood.” The novel is at its best in the oblique revelation of this man, with his lacunae of privacy and passion. The young writer is an acute observer whose watchfulness derives partly from his itinerant upbringing — as a “double person made of two different boxes” — and his discreet sexuality. Guilt-ridden for failing to avert his boss’s death and disqualified from US military service for “sexual indifference to the female of the species” (“blue slip”), he spends World War II couriering paintings to safety for the US state department.

In a spiky satire on press presumption the novel emphasises the disparity between this man and the persona later ascribed to him as a treacherous “art smuggler, womaniser”. A research trip to Merida with his stenographer, an older woman, is written up in the papers as a “January-May romance”. Even his sometime lover, Tom Cuddy, deserts him for his reported lack of patriotism. Yet while “lies are infinite in number and the truth so small and singular”, the novel also witnesses the advent of celebrities who control and manipulate their own image. Kahlo, garbed as Mexican peasant or Aztec queen, says: “If I don’t choose, they choose for me … The newspapers would wrap me in gauze and make me a martyred angel, or else a boring jealous wife.”

Shepherd’s interest as a novelist is in “how civilisations fall, and what leads up to that. How we’re connected to everything in the past.”

His lawyer, Arthur Gold, sees anti-communist persecution, not least of artists, as putting poison on the lawn. “It kills your crabgrass all right and then you have a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time. Maybe for ever.” Kingsolver, who has spoken in a recent US interview of a post-9/11 backlash “against my identity as a political artist”, offers a timely reminder — for those who need it — of an era when surrealist art could be condemned as “un-American” and foreigners deported for “working for Negro rights”. An undead red spectre from the 1950s might not be lost on an Obama administration mooting healthcare reform: “If Truman calls for any change, education improvements, or social security, a chorus shouts him down — welfare state, collectivism, conspiracy.”

Yet the novel’s later sections are marred by overstated irony, the dialogue too often staged between characters who agree, making for an authorial soapbox. More satisfying is an unexpectedly touching coda, in which the quietly besotted Violet keeps faith with the condemned man (“they’ll go to the ends of the earth to haul back people they’ve declared unfit to be Americans,” she notes), and a surprise lacuna holds out hope of escape. — © Guardian News & Media 2009