This is the story of a life pieced together from fragments: the beginnings of a memoir, dairy entries, letters and excerpts from newspapers. But there are gaps – lacunae. And not merely his missing diary. The narrator says that ‘the most important part of any story is the missing piece’, and here, there is much that readers have to fill in for themselves.
The life is that of Harrison Shepherd, who observes and reports on dramatic events but is himself quiet and shy to the point of self-abnegation. In the late 1930s he works as a cook, then secretary, in the household of the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and then as secretary to Lev Trotsky who is in exile in Mexico. Shepherd, who has a Mexican mother and American father, later becomes a popular novelist in America, writing colourful stories about Mexican history.
The piecing together of the written record of his life is undertaken by Violet Brown, who works as his secretary when he lives in America. Shepherd refers to his notes and diaries as ‘trivial stuff’ and wants them burned, but Violet keeps it all, and presents it as a coherent narrative. ‘If God speaks for the man who keeps quiet, then Violet Brown may be his instrument’, she says.
The fact that Shepherd describes real people and real events gives a particular tenor to the story because in some things, many readers already know what is going to happen. I read Shepherd’s day-to-day details of the life of the household when Trotsky is living there with a growing sense of dread because I knew the date of his assassination. The pursuit of Shepherd by the House Committee for Un-American Activities similarly filled me with unease, because the tactics they used and the harm they did are well known. For me, this juxtaposition of the ordinary with the extremely nasty is one of the strengths of the book. But I suspect the writing is good enough that a similar tension would be felt by a reader who didn’t know the details of Trotsky’s death, or the operations of the Dies Committee.
There are some wonderfully subtle touches in the story, where comparisons suggest themselves, or relationships echo other relationships. Did Shepherd really mean to draw a comparison between the weapon the hero of one of his stories receives from the gods and the atomic bomb? Is his relationship with Violet Brown the reflex of his relationship with Frida Kahlo? Are Violet’s feelings for Shepherd similar to Shepherd’s for Van – and does his indifference to her feelings echo Van’s for his? And above all, is Shepherd’s view of his own unimportance really justified, as compared to Violet’s faith in him? Nothing is ever said; it is up to the reader to decide.
Even the end of the story is uncertain, because Shepherd didn’t write about what he intended to do – a huge lacuna, or missing piece, in his story. But it seems lacuna has an additional meaning in Mexico; it refers to the mouth of a cave in a cliff from which an underwater tunnel leads to an inland lake. It is left to Violet to fill in some of the blanks, but remember; the most important part of the story is the missing piece. Could she be right in her speculation about ‘the happy ending, as he called it’?
The section dealing with the investigation of Shepherd for un-American activities is perhaps a bit drawn out. And the gap Violet has to fill in is perhaps too great. But overall, this is a wonderful book. And since I’ve been talking about prizes in recent posts, I note that The Lacuna won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction over Wolf Hall, last year’s Man Booker winner by Hilary Mantel. The Orange Prize is for excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world.
There is plenty of information available on the internet about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Lev Trotsky and many of the events mentioned in the story. Do have a look at some of the paintings. Information about the Orange Prize can be found here.