Friday, 8 July 2011

earning a living in my pyjamas

I found myself agreeing with Harrison Shepherd frequently, but never more so than on the subject of being a writer. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver won the Orange Prize in 2010, leaving me with four winners remaining to read for my challenge.

I tend to be a bit daunted by books that are well over 600 pages and it has taken me quite some weeks to finish this, but it was worth it. A couple of months ago Dunk and I watched a film about the life of Frida Kahlo and she was such a wonderful character, and she plays an important role in this novel, my interest in her kept me engaged when the story was slow. In the references in the front is a list of newspaper articles which are genuine and then the disclaimer: "Historical persons are portrayed and quoted from the historical record, but their conversations with the character Harrison Shepherd are entirely invented." He reminds me of Logan Mountstuart in Any Human Heart, when I was briefly convinced he was a real person, because he was so beautifully integrated into the story of real events. For a writer I think it is a clever and challenging thing to do, to take a real story and rewrite it from a different perspective, and make it thoroughly convincing.

I was a little thrown the first time he encounters Frida, attracted to the servant girl trailing along behind carrying her copious purchases, as she is described as old, and I knew she was never old. Through a series of chance encounters Harrison ends up working for Diego Rivera and then becomes part of their household, as a cook and sometime secretary. He lives with them during the period that they play host to Trotsky after his exile by Stalin. Though he is on the edge of political events Harrison is not really interested in them, his strength is entirely in his observations of people and their relationships, both the significant members of the household and the servants who looked after for them. With Frida's encouragement he records the events as a dispassionate observer, continuing his childhood habit of keeping copious notebooks about his life.

In the face of threats by Stalin and fear of attack from any quarter there develops quite a claustrophobic atmosphere, but when it comes Trotsky's assassination is shocking, even though the event is a matter of history, because I had become quite fond of him. And afterwards Frida sends Harrison back to the US to accompany her paintings for an exhibition. He takes himself off in his deceased father's car and ends up in a small town boarding house, spending the war employed by the government, moving valuable works of art to safe locations. Inspired by his time living in Mexico he subsequently starts writing historical novels about the country's ancient past, which are a surprise hit making him a minor celebrity. This however, in the post-war era, brings him to the attentions of the MacCarthyists and the UnAmerican Activities Committee, and you kind of see it coming that his political naivety is going to get him into trouble. So the book takes us through the background of both sides of the political spectrum, the communists and then the anti-communists.

This book is partly about people on the sidelines. Harrison himself is involved in these big political events, but not really part of them. It is Kingsolver's descriptions of the other 'minor players' that are also so touchingly poignant. This is the description of what became of Harrison's mother:

"How could a life of such large hopes be so small in the end? Her last apartment: one room above a lace-and-girdle shop. One trunk of frocks and phonograph records, donated to a coworker. Were beaux less generous over time? Her assets less marketable? If she had lived to be old, would she have resided in a teacup, to be sipped at intervals beneath some grey moustache?" (p.246)

And Natalya (Trotsky's wife):
"In the years with Lev her world has been so constrained, with so few objects of beauty in it. She is not a bulldog, only a woman pressed into the shape of a small jar, possibly attempting to dance in there. It shows in the way she places a seashell on the window sill, a red painted chair in the corner: she is practiced in the art of creating a still life and taking up residence inside it." (p.276)

And Trotsky himself it transformed from an icon into a real human being:
"He took off his glasses and turned his face to the sun for a moment, boots planted wide, the peasant brow facing heaven. He looked the very image of the People's Revolutions in one of Diego's murals. Then the former president of the Petrograd Soviet put away the manure shovel and went to his breakfast." (p.292)

The whole book is a treasure of closely observed moments, though you are left not sure if the political events are the background to ordinary life or the exquisitely drawn ordinary life is the background to the savage political events, both are narrated with equal care and detail.

As a portrayal of a political era it is equally interesting, the newspaper articles really bringing to life the hysterical pursuit of a frightening dogma. Harrison in a letter to Frida:
"The radio is at the root of the evil, their rule is: No silence, ever. When anything happens, the commentator has to speak without a moment's pause for gathering wisdom. Falsehood and inanity are preferable to silence. You can't imagine the effect of this. The talkers rise above the thinkers." (p.429)

Then some very astute observations, put into the mouths of characters. From Violet Brown (Harrison's secretary), after the surprise re-election of Truman:
"Oh, Mr. Shepherd, it's a day to remember. Those news men could not make a thing true just by saying so. It's only living makes a life." (p.589)

And from Artie Gold, his lawyer:
"You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what's broken in the land. Because if you happen to mention it's broken, you are automatically disqualified." (p.562-3)

And then I loved this little piece about the nature of the Mayan culture:

"Today we drove south through villages of Mayan farmers, most beginning with X - pronounced 'ish.' X-puil, X-mal, J├ęsus revealed the secret of the Mayan tongue: shhh. X does not mark the spot, it marks a hush. The Mayans speak their language everywhere in the countryside, and it sounds like whispered secrets. Women stand together in doorways, muttering: shhh, shhh. Fathers and sons walk along the roadside carrying ancient-looking hoes, quietly making a plan: shhh." (p.523)

A clever and fascinating book, about making your own life, which Harrison does (from a very unpromising beginning) recording it, which he also does, making it again and having it destroyed. Harrison's life is reflected in the experience of Trotsky, who's life slowly vanishes as Stalin has everyone he has ever known or loved executed, and also I felt to some extent in Frida, who's works of art document her own life (many, many of them are self-portraits). It is a book about Harrison, and interestingly his relationships with the women in his life, firstly his mother, then Frida and then Violet, all of which have both an intimacy and a reserve to them. And I have not even touched on the myriad of other characters who contribute to the rich tapestry of the novel. A worthy prize winner and I will definitely be reading her again. I'll end with this final quote that seems to sum up the ethos of the book (note: 'Lev' refers to Trotsky, it is his original given name):

"The notebooks are gone. It must have been like this for Lev at the end, with his past entirely stolen. A lifetime of people, unconfirmed by their living presences, or photographs or descriptions in a notebook, can only skulk in the corners like ghosts. They shift like chimeras. Careful words of warning reverse themselves like truth and newspaper stories, becoming their own opposites. An imperfectly remembered life is a useless treachery. Every day, more fragments of the past roll around heavily in the chambers of an empty brain, shedding bits of colour, a sentence or a fragrance, something that changes and then disappears. It drops like a stone to the bottom of the cave." (p340-1)

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