SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 141 - September 2010

Novel dissent

The Lacuna

By Barbara Kingsolver

Published by Faber & Faber, 2010, £7-99

Reviewed by Kate Jones

IT IS NOT often that an award-winning work of mainstream literary fiction by a best-selling author, and an American one at that, includes a sympathetic pen-portrait of a socialist revolutionary. And yet 70 years after Trotsky’s death at the hands of Stalin’s agents, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna provides precisely that, in a highly readable novel which successfully embeds a strong political message, and real historical events and characters, into a lengthy and complex work of fiction – a gripping human story told through diaries, letters and newspaper cuttings.

A scientist and environmental campaigner as well as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, Barbara Kingsolver knows about being pilloried for expressing political opinions. She says on her website: "After the September 11 attacks, I witnessed a ferocious backlash against people who raised questions about how we should respond. The mainstream media launched a lot of vitriol at any... dissident voice". At a time when most opinion-makers and political leaders were baying for blood, her articles calling for calm debate and suggesting that "in critical times, our leaders need most to be influenced by the moderating force of dissent" were met with hate-mail and threats. She feared for the safety of her family and even considered giving up writing altogether, but instead decided to make political witch-hunts the theme of her next novel – the result was The Lacuna.

Interviewed in The Guardian, (10 June) she described growing up in an America where "you literally were not allowed to say communist... a whole generation of us grew up in the mode of: don’t talk about it, don’t think about it". "We’re not over it", she adds. Reaction by the evangelical and Republican right, and media such as Fox News, to the election of Barack Obama proves this. Even liberal campaigners for free healthcare, for civil liberties and workers’ rights continue to be labelled ‘communist’.

The Lacuna is not her first venture into politically controversial territory. Her non-fiction work Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike (1989), based on hundreds of hours of interviews with strikers and their families, is a compelling and sympathetic account of a strike in the mid-1980s.

Her hugely successful novel, The Poisonwood Bible (1998), tells the story of the anti-colonial movement in the Belgian Congo, and the brutal response of American imperialism to the election of Lumumba. Events are seen through the varying viewpoints of the wife and children of an American missionary, from the late-1950s to the 1990s. Kingsolver herself spent some of her childhood in the Congo, where her father worked as a doctor, and her support for the anti-colonial struggle comes across strongly.

The Lacuna has as its central character the son of a Mexican mother and an American father. The young Harrison Shepherd is caught up in the political upheavals of the 1930s and 1940s, and through the eyes of this fictional (but very believable and extremely likeable) character we witness real events, encountering historical figures, such as the artist Diego Rivera, his wife and fellow-artist Frida Kahlo, and most interestingly, their friend and comrade Leon Trotsky, whom they helped find sanctuary in Mexico for the last three years of his life. Shepherd works as a cook, and subsequently a secretary, in Trotsky’s household and comes to admire him. Following Trotsky’s murder, Shepherd returns to the US, where he becomes a writer of popular novels set in the Mexico of the Aztecs. When the anti-communist witch-hunt begins, Shepherd finds himself trapped by his past, by his innate honesty and humanity, and by his loyalty to Trotsky.

Although effectively a minor character, Trotsky casts a shadow over events in the book. Kingsolver paints a sympathetic and very human picture of Trotsky, and of his life in exile in Mexico – his ever more restricted world, the few and simple pleasures available to him, the increasing threat from Stalinist agents, his total reliance on friends and comrades, his efforts via the Dewey Commission to answer Stalin’s accusations, the murder of his son Leon Sedov, and his own eventual betrayal and murder. She also describes his hounding by both the bourgeois and Stalinist press, who accused him of faking an attempted assassination, one from which in fact he and his wife had a very narrow escape, and during which his grandson was injured. Trotsky’s own words, from Dewey Commission evidence, and from other documentary sources, are used extensively.

Kingsolver invents very few scenes of imagined dialogue between Trotsky and Shepherd, but they are telling ones. Discovering that Shepherd is writing a novel, Trotsky reacts with enthusiasm: "A novel! Why do you say this won’t liberate anyone? Where does any man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison?" On another occasion, seeing Trotsky tending the rabbits and chickens, and even shovelling manure, Shepherd protests: "You are a very great thinker, sir, you shouldn’t be doing farm work". To which Trotsky replies: "Everyone should get dirt on his hands each day. Doctors, intellectuals. Politicians most of all. How can we presume to uplift the life of the working man, if we don’t respect his work?"

Earlier in his life we meet Shepherd, still a schoolboy, with his American father. In Washington DC he encounters a "most amazing spectacle: a city of tents and shacks... like a Mexican village of the very poorest kind set down in the middle of Washington". American veterans of the Great War, the so-called Bonus Army, are trying to get their promised veteran’s bonus of $500 and have come to put their case to President Hoover himself. But tanks and cavalry are brought in to disperse the protest – Patton’s and MacArthur’s troops charge the crowd, "leaning down from the waist, on their horses, flailing their sabre blades against whatever was below them. Against people". The protesters are dismissed as Communists and common criminals by the press, again playing its part in vilifying dissent and dissenters. This shameful episode in US history is little known, and may well be unknown even to many American readers of the book.

In the third and final element of the witch hunt, Shepherd, by the late 1940s a popular novelist, is called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He says of his own politics: "I spent almost all my life putting food on other people’s plates. So you could say, my sentiments lodge in the proletarian quarter. The workers’ control of industry strikes me as a decent idea". He sees no reason to compromise his principles or his friends, and remains loyal to the memory of Trotsky.

Barbara Kingsolver is clear that she sees literature as a powerful political tool – this book is her response to the press paranoia aroused by anything seen as un-American – workers fighting for their rights, colonial people’s struggle against imperialism, or people simply questioning the ‘war on terror’. She compares the press to the howler monkeys which frighten Shepherd as a young child: "one howls and the others pass it on".

Her reputation, with the added cachet of the 2010 Orange Prize, will guarantee this novel a massive and widespread readership. This will surely help spread the name of Leon Trotsky, the facts of his life and death, and at least the basics of his ideas, to people around the world who know no more than his name, if that. Asked why she included him in the book, Kingsolver has described Trotsky as "an erased person" and said she wanted to nail some of the lies and misconceptions about him. For that, as well as for a great story and a thought-provoking book, she is to be applauded.


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