He leaves Mexico twice—first as a young boy who is sent off to live with his father for a time, and then later as an adult when he eventually settles in Asheville, NC. Drawing on his childhood, he begins to write novels of the fallen Aztec empire, reworking stories he heard in his childhood. These novels are wildly successful, and provide a livable income for him. But, he harbors a personal secret. For me, the major frustration in reading the novel is that the secret is only touched on, and never explored in depth.
All his life, he has kept diaries. These diaries provide the literary conceit which moves the story along. As a successful author, he employs a personal secretary who eventually becomes the recipient of the diaries, and it is her telling in the second half of the novel that moves the story along. By now, the time frame of the novel is the mid-1950s. The height of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities and the Senate McCarthy hearings. Harrison’s prior contact with “Communists” comes to light. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale.
I could not help but think of current events. There is a kind of drumbeat in this country to have only one kind of thinking. Maybe that is too dire a pronouncement, but to hear some of the commentaries that air on television, the acceptance for diverging points of view is minimal. You don’t think as I do—the fault and blame is yours. MY WAY IS THE ONLY RIGHT WAY.
Things are far worse in places where religious extremism reigns. I read stories of the Taliban in Afghanistan or Pakistan stoning people to death. There have been two recent such instances. As if the actual event weren’t bad enough, the stonings were videotaped. Maybe the video bears witness to the practice—and needs to be shared.
Maybe there is something built in to our human nature that just wants to point the finger and say—YOU, you are the transgressor. You must die for not thinking, or acting as I do. Or you must be banished. Or silenced. Somehow you must be removed from having any influence on the world in which I live.
I recall that stunning story by Shirley Jackson “The Lottery.” If you've never read this story, you should--though prepare to be horrified. It too is a cautionary tale. There are difference between the events portrayed in The Lacuna, and in Jackson's "The Lottery." But the driving motivation behind them is the same--it is oh so tempting to find someone to blame--to point the finger--to cast a lottery and pick someone to stone, because that process gives us the illusion of safety.
Can it happen here again? Would we go through the kind of horror that reach epitome in the McCarthy hearings? I fervently hope not. But it takes vigilance on all our parts. We need to remember that only as we are tolerant, only as we live and let live, only as we acknowledge that the path each of us has chosen is NOT necessarily the path others must walk--then with that level of awareness and acknowledgement, we might be able to escape the cycle of history.
Read The Lacuna, by all means. Enjoy its peek into an era. But also think of it as a cautionary tale.