Isla Pixol, Mexico, 1929
In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten. It would start with just one: his forced, rhythmic groaning, like a saw blade. That aroused others near him, nudging them to bawl along with his monstrous tune. Soon the maroon-throated howls would echo back from other trees, farther down the beach, until the whole jungle filled with roaring trees. As it was in the beginning, so it is every morning of the world.
The boy and his mother believed it was saucer-eyed devils screaming in those trees, fighting over the territorial right to consume human flesh. The first year after moving to Mexico to stay at Enrique’s house, they woke up terrified at every day’s dawn to the howling. Sometimes she ran down the tiled hallway to her son’s bedroom, appearing in the doorway with her hair loose, her feet like iced fish in the bed, pulling the crocheted bedspread tight as a web around the two of them, listening. [The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, Part 1]
This rich, colourful, clever novel is a door-stopper at 500 pages and an immensely satisfying read. Kingsolver believes that writing is a political act and a marvellous article in The LIstener (Feb 6-12) explores this. She says:
I've always been interested in fictional terrain that urges people to question some of their most basic assumptions, and I think that's why I get called political. But I think of it as using the craft to its mightiest potential. Fiction is creating a powerful sympathy for the theoretical stranger. That's at the bottom of the civil rights movement. Every war in history is about a success or failure of empathy for a different position. So I think all novelists are political. It's just that some of us own up to it. [NZ Listener Feb 6-12]
Until now, I've thought (been encouraged to think?) of the modern author as a story-teller primarily (only) who does not push a position of any sort, let alone a political one, but stands back and lets the reader explore what is there in front of them. And yet you hope that you have created 'a powerful sympathy for the theoretical stranger', of course you do: that particular stranger in that particular story and by extrapolation others, perhaps the real stranger even? ... A political act? Interesting.
The Lacuna is the story of an unusual Mexican/'Gringo' boy who works for Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and exiled Bolshevik Leon Trotsky in Mexico as a cook and translator. The boy observes and engages with their colourful, political, intertwined lives and secretly (and not so secretly) writes both a diary and a novel. He then moves north to McCarthyist US where he writes, and experiences - as his previous employers had - vilification at the hands of the media.
The Listener says Kingsolver wrote the novel as a response to 9/11, when she was vilified herself by the media (which is surely represented by the jungle of howler monkeys at the novel's beginning) following an opinion piece she wrote in the aftermath of the Twin Towers for a San Francisco newspaper. She said she was misquoted.
It was a terrible time, and I thought the best thing to do would be to use it for something beautiful and useful. So I started writing [The Lacuna] in February 2002 because I had to put it on paper or go crazy. [NZ Listener, Feb 6-12]
I understand the burning need to transform experience into fiction - and am thrilled to think of that act as creating something both 'beautiful and useful'! The Listener article talks of Kingsolver's 'penetrating curiosity', and her sense of joy and fun. All of these pervade The Lacuna and make it both an entertaining and a stimulating read. Oh yes, at times the novel sprawls, and at times it is too - what a friend of mine calls - 'fancy pants' (all those diary entries and letters etc to tell a story rather than straight narrative). But the fact remains that Barbara Kingsolver has written a rich and compelling sprawling, fancy-pants novel.