When New York Times critic Liesl Schillinger reviewed Barbara Kingsolver’s book “The Lacuna” on Nov. 5, 2009, her opening paragraph brought chills just as the description of the event in Kingsolver’s book did.
“A skinny young boy holds his breath and dives into the mouth of an underwater cave — a lacuna — swimming toward pale blue light as his lungs scream for oxygen. He emerges, gasping, in a ghostly cenote, a sinkhole in the Mexican jungle fringed with broken coral, wedged with human bones: a place of sacrifice and buried remembrance. When the tide rushes out, it will take the boy with it, “dragging a coward explorer back from the secret place, sucking him out through the tunnel and spitting him into the open sea.” He’ll paddle to shore and walk home, obsessed forever after by hidden passages that contain deeper meanings — meanings that only art may recapture. He’ll acquire a notebook and fill it with stories and memories; when it’s full, he’ll begin another and then another. But were he to consign these notebooks to the scrapheap, how would their mysteries be known? Who dares plunge into the wreckage of a discarded history, not knowing the risks of retrieval?”
This is the cenote, or Well of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza which I write about more below. Double click to enlarge.
In a nutshell, if you haven’t read it, “The Lacuna” is the life of Harrison William Shepherd, the product of a divorced American father and a Mexican mother. After getting kicked out of his American military academy, Harrison spends his formative years in Mexico in the 1930s in the household of Diego Rivera; his wife, Frida Kahlo; and their houseguest, Leon Trotsky, who is hiding from Soviet assassins. After Trotsky is assassinated, Harrison returns to the U.S., settling down in Asheville, N.C., where he becomes an author of historical potboilers and is later investigated as a possible subversive. The book is narrated in the form of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, by the way.
The book was not an easy read, and occasionally I got bogged down which was how I felt about “Poisonwood Bible.” Kingsolver’s earlier books were easier. But—the depth and breadth of “The Lacuna” was literally mind-blowing for me. It was worth the work.
But, it was the cenote, or sink hole that sucked me in and haunts me still. I had never heard the word cenote before. What a way to start a novel. I shiver thinking about it, just as I did when I stood at the edge of the Sacred Pool of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza in 1979. Author David Gibbins has some wonderful photos and descriptions of the ruins and the well.
He says, “From the central precinct at Chichén Itzá the paths converge towards the Sacred Way, a raised causeway extending some 300 metres north into the jungle. At the end is the Sacred Cenote, the ‘Well of Sacrifice’ - a natural sinkhole in the limestone, its roof collapsed long before the Maya built the small structures and platform visible here. Soon after the Spanish conquest, a 16th century Franciscan bishop, Diego de Landa, wrote that here ‘they had the custom of throwing men alive as a sacrifice to the gods, in times of drought, and they believed that they did not die though they never saw them again.’ Other Spanish sources spoke of ‘Indian women belonging to each of the Lords.’ It was a haunting image of maidenly sacrifice, yet was borne out when the cenote was dredged and explored by divers on several occasions over the last century.”
I’ll admit that I have done extensive reading over the years about reincarnation but haven’t really come to any personal conclusions, except for the day I stood on the platform above the well all those years ago. I was frozen in time and terror as I had vivid recall of being drugged and convinced what an honor it was to be a virgin sacrifice for my people.
I guess the bottom line is that I highly recommend “The Lacuna,” if you are willing to go with the flow of Kingsolver’s plot and technique. It made a period in history come alive for me and I really loved her Frida Kahlo, who is a favorite artist of mine. I’ll also never forget seeing Diego Rivera’s murals in Mexico City.