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Review: The Lacuna
The howlers' world and ours
THE LACUNA is written as the diary of a solitary young man, Harrison Shepherd, who ends up working as a cook for the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and then the exiled Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution.
This novel won Barbara Kingsolver the 2010 Orange Fiction Prize. Kingsolver has previously written about workers' struggle, in particular in her non-fiction book Holding the Line, about women in the Arizona mine strike in the 1980s.
The Lacuna covers an era with many parallels with today.
Shepherd is an observer and reluctant participant in great events. He is a schoolboy in the US during the Great Depression, and witnesses the massacre of the starving Bonus Army (marching in 1932 to demand that the Hoover government pays them what they were promised for fighting in the first world war).
Shepherd experienced first hand the activities of the Committee on Un-American Activities, a proto-McCarthyite body.
The Lacuna features real people, but it is fiction not history. Nor does the book deal with Trotsky's ideas. Nonetheless, it would give the uninitiated a better glimpse of the kind of man Trotsky was than most of the non-fiction dealing with him currently on the best-seller lists, such as Robert Service's scurrilous attacks on every aspect of Trotsky's life and ideas.
This attempt to bury Trotsky's ideas under an avalanche of slander is understood by Barbara Kingsolver.
The book deals with the way in which 'the howlers' - the capitalist media - lied about this revolutionary leader in his lifetime, even claiming that Stalin's assassins' attempts to murder him are an elaborate hoax by Trotsky to gain publicity.
Later on, when he is back in the US and a successful novelist, Harrison Shepherd is hounded by the press for supposedly being a communist.
Looking back, he remembers what Trotsky told him about there being "two kinds of papers, the ones that lie every day and the ones that save it for special campaigns, for greater impact."
This is not just a historical novel. It makes points on how Kingsolver sees art being used in the US. At one stage Shepherd's friend and assistant, Violet Brown, argues that his historical Mexican potboilers can deal with themes of injustice and remain acceptable because they are set in a dim and distant past and a foreign land.
At the end of the book she has Shepherd's diaries locked away for 50 years, with the idea that they be published on their release and, presumably, in the hope that the story they tell will have become something that can find an audience by then.
The Lacuna is written as those diaries. No doubt Barbara Kingsolver hopes readers will draw comparisons with today - with the propaganda surrounding the 'war on terror' and the gulf between rich and poor in the US, now once again approaching the level it was in the 1930s.
by Barbara Kingsolver
£18.99 (hb) £7.99 (pb), please add 10% for postage
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