[Marxism] Trotsky, Kahlo and Rivera characters in new novel

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Nov 8 07:53:00 MST 2009

NY Times Book Review, November 8, 2009
Barbara Kingsolver’s Artists and Idols
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By Barbara Kingsolver
507 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99

A skinny young boy holds his breath and dives into the mouth of an 
underwater cave — a lacuna — swimming toward pale blue light as his 
lungs scream for oxygen. He emerges, gasping, in a ghostly cenote, a 
sinkhole in the Mexican jungle fringed with broken coral, wedged with 
human bones: a place of sacrifice and buried remembrance. When the tide 
rushes out, it will take the boy with it, “dragging a coward explorer 
back from the secret place, sucking him out through the tunnel and 
spitting him into the open sea.” He’ll paddle to shore and walk home, 
obsessed forever after by hidden passages that contain deeper meanings — 
meanings that only art may recapture. He’ll acquire a notebook and fill 
it with stories and memories; when it’s full, he’ll begin another and 
then another. But were he to consign these notebooks to the scrapheap, 
how would their mysteries be known? Who dares plunge into the wreckage 
of a discarded history, not knowing the risks of retrieval?

Barbara Kingsolver’s breathtaking new novel, “Lacuna,” follows this 
quiet, dreamy boy, Harrison William Shepherd, from 1929 to 1951. When we 
first meet him, he’s 12 years old, living at a hacienda on Isla Pixol 
with his self-dramatizing mother, Salomé, both of them petrified by the 
howling monkeys in the trees above, which they believe to be carnivorous 
demons. “You had better write all this in your notebook,” Salomé tells 
Shepherd, “so when nothing is left of us but bones, someone will know 
where we went.”

A year earlier, Salomé, a slang-slinging Mexican beauty, had ditched her 
drab American husband (Shepherd’s father) in Washington, D.C., and 
chased an oilman back to his Mexican estate. On Isla Pixol, as Salomé 
sulks over her love life like a bobby-soxer, lonely Shepherd befriends 
the hacienda’s cook, who turns the boy into a sous-chef while innocently 
cluing the kid into his sexuality (which bobby-soxers will never 
unleash). Shepherd’s other close companions are the volumes in the 
hacienda library and his notebook, which he regards as “a prisoner’s 
plan for escape.” In the short term, though, it’s Salomé who escapes 
Isla Pixol, dragging the boy with her, bolting for Mexico City in 
pursuit of an American she calls “Mr. Produce the Cash” — and, after 
him, others.

His mother is not a puta, Shepherd reflects, with detached sympathy, 
even as he overhears her “bedroom jolly-ups” through thin walls. She’s 
just a romantic woman who yearns for “an admirer” as she tries to put a 
roof over their heads. Nonetheless, while still in his teens the boy 
embarks upon a different path, toward a life unruled by passion. “People 
contort themselves around the terror of being alone, making any 
compromise against that,” he observes later in life. “It’s a great 
freedom to give up on love and get on with everything else.” But it’s a 
freedom more easily imagined than lived.

Leaving his mother to her Mme. Bovary messes, Shepherd parlays his 
domestic skills into a job mixing plaster for Diego Rivera’s murals 
(“It’s like making dough for pan dulce”) and joins the Rivera household 
as cook and typist for Rivera, his artist wife, Frida Kahlo, and later 
for their guest, the exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky. In this 
incendiary, revolutionary household, Shepherd keeps mum and lets louder 
egos roar, just as he did on Isla Pixol. Baking bread by day, he records 
the daily dramas of this entourage by night, along with a draft of his 
first novel, an epic of the Aztec empire. But in 1940, when Trotsky is 
assassinated, Shepherd leaves Mexico, spooked by the virulent press that 
denounces his employers and their murdered ward “like the howlers on 
Isla Pixol.” At the age of 24, he returns to the United States and 
settles in Asheville, N.C. There he becomes a reclusive, gentlemanly 
author of swashbuckling Mexican historical novels (“Vassals of Majesty,” 
“Pilgrims of Chapultepec”) until the ungentlemanly House Un-American 
Activities Committee drags him into the spotlight, rewriting his 
character in crude strokes for the public stage.

Shepherd had thought discretion would protect him, since his private 
thoughts were safely interred in his journals. “Dios habla por el que 
calla,” he likes to tell his devoted Asheville secretary, Violet Brown: 
“ God speaks for the silent man.” But Brown, who knows that God doesn’t 
always speak as loudly as Senator ­McCarthy, tells her boss that unlike 
another local writer, Thomas Wolfe, he was prudent to set his fiction 
outside Asheville — and America. “People love to read of sins and 
errors, just not their own,” she remarks. “You were wise to put your 
characters far from here.” As it turns out, they weren’t far enough. The 
book we read today, Brown reveals, was assembled by herself in 1959 from 
Shepherd’s junked notebooks and sealed for 50 years, to be opened in 
2009 — when she hoped it could inform readers about “those who labored 
and birthed the times they have inherited.”

How can the experiences of a fictional loner merge with those of 
larger-than-life figures who played a pivotal role in world politics? 
And what can readers learn from their intersection? Those are the 
questions answered by this dazzling novel, which plunges into Shepherd’s 
notebooks to dredge up not only the perceptions they conceal but also a 
history larger than his own, touching on everything from Trotskyism, 
Stalinism and the Red scare to racism, mass hysteria and the media’s 
intrusion into personal and national affairs. More than half a century 
on, names like Trotsky, Rivera, Kahlo and McCarthy can lose their 
definition, like coins with the faces rubbed off. Shepherd’s 
reminis­cences step in where the historical record can’t, restoring 
human contours. To Shepherd, working as a cook in the Rivera kitchen, 
Trotsky was more than a defender of the working man; he was a person of 
flesh and blood — “compact, muscular,” with the build of a peasant, who 
clasped a pen “as if it were an ax handle” and liked to feed chickens 
when he wasn’t unspooling his thoughts on the Fourth Inter­national. 
Trotsky’s optimism — while he was in exile and under death threats — 
leads Shepherd to marvel, “Does a man become a revolutionary out of the 
belief he’s entitled to joy rather than submission?”

Frida KAHLO tells Shepherd he has a “pierced soul” like her own and 
respects his artistic commitment, even as she teases him cruelly for his 
closeted sexual drives. “To be a good artist you have to know something 
that’s true,” she tells him; and reputation isn’t worth worrying about. 
“People will always stare at the queer birds like you and me,” she says, 
in a spirit of defiance, not empathy. Coasting on a pleasure boat 
through the floating gardens of Xochimilco with Trotsky (who was briefly 
her lover), Shepherd and Trotsky’s secretary, Van, whom Shepherd 
secretly loves, Kahlo buys a woven toy called a trapanovio “for catching 
boyfriends” and taunts him to try it on Van. Shepherd keeps the toy as a 
“souvenir of a remarkable humiliation.” Yet Shepherd, who learned 
compassion for others, if not for himself, at his diva mother’s knee, 
soothes Kahlo when Rivera wants a divorce. “Even in her disconsolate 
state she looked like a peacock,” he notices. “Perfectly dressed in a 
green silk skirt and enough jewelry to sink a boat. Even drowning, Frida 
would cling to vanity.”

Such texture doesn’t interest the heavies from the House Un-American 
Activities Committee, for whom the names Trotsky, Rivera and Kahlo set 
off ­Communist-menace alarm bells. In 1947, meeting with his lawyer in 
North Carolina to discuss a letter from J. Edgar Hoover, Shepherd 
doesn’t understand why the F.B.I. would care about his Mexican past. “I 
was a cook,” he explains. “Let me just say,” the lawyer replies, “these 
subtleties are lost.”

“The Lacuna” can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on 
nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real 
and invented people; or for its harmonious choir of voices. But the 
fuller value of Kingsolver’s novel lies in its call to conscience and 
connection. She has mined Shepherd’s richly imagined history to create a 
tableau vivant of epochs and people that time has transformed almost 
past recognition. Yet it’s a tableau vivant whose story line resonates 
in the present day, albeit with different players. Through Shepherd’s 
resurrected notebooks, Kingsolver gives voice to truths whose teller 
could express them only in silence.

Liesl Schillinger is a regular contributor to the Book Review.

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