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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Lacuna


The Lacuna is the story of a man’s search for safety in the grinding jaws of two nations, at a moment when the entire world seemed bent on reinventing itself at any cost.

Born in the US, reared in a series of provisional households in Mexico, Harrison Shepherd is mostly a liability to his social-climbing flapper mother, Salomé. From a coastal island jungle to the unpaved neighbourhoods of 1930s Mexico City, through a disastrous stint at a military school in Virginia and back again, his fortunes never steady as Salomé finds her rich men-friends always on the losing side of the Mexican Revolution. Sometimes she gives her son cigarettes instead of supper.

He aims for invisibility, observing his world and recording everything with a peculiar selfless irony in his notebooks. Life is whatever he learns from servants putting him to work in the kitchen, errands he runs in the streets, and one fateful day, by mixing plaster for famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Making himself useful in the household of the muralist, his wife Frida Kahlo, and exiled Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky, young Shepherd inadvertently casts his lot with art and revolution, and the howling gossip and reportage that dictate public opinion.

A violent upheaval sends him north to a nation newly caught up in the internationalist goodwill of World War II. In the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, he remakes himself in America’s hopeful image. Under the watch of his peerless stenographer, Violet Brown, he finds an extraordinary use for his talents of observation. But political winds continue to push him between north and south, in a plot that turns many times on the unspeakable breach - the lacuna - between truth and public presumption.

This is a gripping story of identity, connection with our past, and the power of words to create or devastate. Like no other novel yet written, it illuminates an era when bold internationalism gave way to a post-war landscape of narrowly defined ‘Americanism’. Crossing two decades, from the vibrant revolutionary murals of Mexico City to the halls of a Congress bent on eradicating the colour red, The Lacuna is as deep and rich as the New World itself.


This is the story of Harrison William Shepherd, son of a Mexican mother and an American father. The father is careless towards the boy whereas the mother wishes to embrace new romances and adventures in her life, thus she returns to Mexico, taking Harrison with her.
The book is written under the form of a journal of Harrison’s life from his earliest memories. It transports us through the details of his life in Mexico, where through a set of events he becomes Frida Kahlo and Diogo Rivera’s cook. Later he meets Leon Trotsky, after he became an exile of the Stalinist regime. Harrison’s life intertwines with that of historical characters, leading the reading to something extremely fascinating.
As an adult he returns to America where books on Mexican history become best-seller. However, the Commission against Un-American Activities starts taking place and he is called upon to testify given that it is believed that he may belong to the Communist Party, which brings him a huge feeling of anguish, as he was always a very private citizen and eventually leads to the decision ending the book.
Sometimes it seems to us that Harrison Shepherd is more of a passive observer than a strong participant of His own life. With such a strong group of characters, so marked, each one of them with such a decided and intransigent opinion to the vast majority of subjects, Harrison functions, in a certain as a counterpoint: he listens and observes, absorbing everything and breathing out his impressions in diaries and novels.
When Harrison asks his secretary to burn a childhood journal, he muses (to himself): "An invisible boy made manifest, seen for once by another's eyes, if only for a short while. A city of memories has gone up in fire and gas, and there can be no remorse." In these very words, Shepherd reveals his nature.
It is a passionate reading, whether by the story itself, by the fact of sometimes we do not exactly know who is telling it. The descriptions of life at Kahlo’s household as well as Trotsky’s personality have absolutely captivated us. E end up finding unexpected glimpses into Mexican history and culture, a little bit further from the common places we so often see. This work has already been referenced couple of times by the author allegedly having a political agenda underneath to the book. We disagree; it seems to us that this novel, despite centering itself on politics is about people, it does not glorify communism or socialism nor anti-communism or capitalism, but how people transport their lives and themselves into those currents. Makes us wishing to learn more about all those opposing visions and knowing the motivations of those who we do not know or have a different perspective of the world. It’s a message we find several times through the book.
It's a book finely written. The smallest details end up being very important. It is a story that takes its own time to be told, it is an immense and ambitious enterprise that this books aims to fulfill. The seamless integration of historical material with all the imagery and literary narrative motifs make of this novel something quite remarkable at any level we measure up.

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