I love reading books that are set in the place that I’m traveling, especially when I’m traveling alone. The book can be my dinner companion, and it can make me feel more connected to the place I’m exploring. On this trip, I’ve mainly been reading Mexican LGBT short stories, most of which are set in Mexico. But no piece of Mexican fiction I’ve read has evoked Mexico as strongly as has Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Lacuna. It was recommended to me earlier this year by a fellow student at Calle 55 in Merida, an excellent Spanish language school. A historical novel set largely in Mexico during the early 20th Century (although a big chunk of it takes place in Asheville, North Carolina), The Lacuna gives us a peek at the daily lives of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky. When my classmate told me about it, I was intrigued, so I bought it for my iPad. But I waited until I was living in Mexico City to start reading it.
The novel is narrated by Harrison Shepherd, a gay American-Mexican, born to a Mexican mother and American father in the US but raised in Mexico. As a young man, he works as a cook and a secretary, first for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and later for Leon Trotsky. Harrison is like a smart, gay Forrest Gump, witness to an extraordinary number of historical events. Even when visiting his father in Washington, DC, for instance, he’s present for General Douglas MacArthur’s 1932 assault on the Bonus Army encampment. But The Lacuna also bears a resemblance to The Book of Salt, Monique Truong’s novel about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s gay Vietnamese chef. In both books, a celebrated circle of artists and writers is seen through the eyes of the lonely gay man who cooks for them.
When I got to the part of the book that took place in Trotsky’s house, I found myself wanting to revisit the Museo Casa Leon Trotsky. I had been there once before, years ago, on my first visit to Mexico City, just after visiting the Frida Kahlo Museum. I found it to be a fascinating place, one that tells a story I’d long wanted to better understand.
I first heard the name Trotsky as a teenager: after Vanessa Redgrave gave her infamous acceptance speech at the 1978 Academy Awards, she was described in the press as a Trotskyite. I had no idea what that meant, and it wasn’t easy to find out in 1978. There was no Internet, and encyclopedias and other reference materials at the time simply said that Trotsky was a figure in the Bolshevik Revolution who fled Russia after Stalin came to power and was later assassinated in Mexico. But there was no indication of what a Trotskyite might be, what political philosophy Trotsky espoused, how it differed from Stalin’s. In 1978, in the US, communists were the enemy. There was nothing else to know.
Barbara Kingsolver paints a much more detailed portrait of Trotsky. He comes across as a kind and honorable man who really wanted to create a democratic form of socialism, not just in the Soviet Union but around the world. In her telling, he was intended to be Lenin’s successor, but in a plot twist worthy of a telenovela, Stalin tricked him. Trotsky (known as Lev in the book–apparently his real nickname) had fallen ill and was convalescing in the Russian countryside when Lenin died. In a letter, Stalin informed him of Lenin’s death and convinced him not to return to Moscow just yet. The state funeral had been delayed, Stalin said, and Lev needed to rest and recover his strength for the tasks that lay ahead. By the time Lev returned to Moscow, the state funeral had already taken place and Stalin had used the occasion to persuade the entire country that Trotsky had betrayed Lenin and the revolution. I have no idea if this is historically accurate.
It definitely is historically accurate that Diego Rivera and several other Mexican communists urged Mexican President Cardenas to offer Trotsky asylum in Mexico. For a while, Trotsky lived in Frida’s blue house in Coyoacan. He and Frida wound up having an affair, leading to a rift between him and Diego, though not as much of a rift as one would expect. In Kingsolver’s version of the story, Trotsky moved away from Frida’s blue house to a nearby house on la Calle Viena not because of his affair with Frida–Diego and Frida both had plenty of affairs and neither considered infidelity an especially big deal–but because Trotsky read a letter Diego had sent to a mutual friend which characterized him as a stick-in-the-mud who couldn’t “let the revolution rest for a night and get drunk with a friend.”
The falling out between these two men creates an enormous dilemma for Harrison, who is forced to choose between Rivera and Trotsky. He chooses Trotsky, and he remains at Trotsky’s side until the end. Trotsky is a father figure for this young man, who has had so little interaction with his own father, and Trotsky’s assassination, which he witnesses, continues to haunt him for years.
But before I got to that passage in the book, I hopped into an Uber car and headed to Museo Casa de Leon Trotsky. I wandered through the rooms of the house, which have been preserved as they were when Trotsky lived there: the kitchen and the offices which were used in Kingsolver’s book by Harrison, who both cooked and typed for Trotsky; the bedroom Trotsky shared with his wife, Natalya; the bedroom of their grandson Seva, who was wounded in an assassination attempt organized by the great Mexican painter David Siqueiros, a Communist Party member loyal to Stalin; and the office where Trotsky wrote and was eventually assassinated. I strolled through the cactus gardens that were one of Trotsky’s great passions. He went on expeditions to the Mexican countryside, where he dug up cacti to replant in his garden. Trotsky believed that in an ideal state every person would do both physical and intellectual work every day. While living in this house, he spent part of every day writing and part of every day tending his chickens and rabbits and cacti. The rabbit hutches are still on the grounds of the museum, and supposedly descendants of his rabbits still survive (though they don’t live at the museum).
His gardens are a peaceful place. I sat on a bench in them and continued reading Kingsolver’s book, including her account of Trotsky’s assassination.
It’s terribly sad story. Even before Lev and Natalya arrived in Mexico, Stalin had gunned down many of their friends and family members, and every month seemed to bring them more bad news. During his exile in Mexico, Trotsky knew that he could be killed any day. His belief in the revolution kept him going, kept him writing, despite all the personal grief he and his wife had endured. After his assassination, 200,000 people followed his coffin through the streets of Mexico City. The Mexican government bought the house from Natalya in order to give her some financial independence. She moved to France, where she died in 1962. And today, this museum is the only site in the world that pays tribute to Trotsky and his ideas.
Although virtually every tourist in Mexico City makes it to the Frida Kahlo Museum, many skip the Trotsky Museum. But if you’re spending a day in Coyoacan, you should visit both. If you know anything about Frida Kahlo’s life (even if you’ve just seen the movie Frida), you know about her involvement with Trotsky. These museums complement each other in a wonderful way, and one is just a short walk from the other. And if you’re looking for some interesting fiction to read on a trip to Mexico City, I recommend The Lacuna.