I am dreaming, dreaming, dreaming of Abroad.
Close, far, anything will do. Though far is preferred. The urge to flip over my desk with a scornful backhand, shoulder a backpack and set off to Mozambique, Fiji, and Provence in an inefficient order is at times overwhelming. At one point I was quite a traveller, with over 30 countries under my belt by the age of 24. But then, dammit, LIFE came along. Stinking city life, with its alarm clocks and its identical roads walked OVER and OVER again, and feats of stunning intimacy committed daily with malodorous strangers on the tube. Curse you, Piccadilly Line. And my skin starts to burn with the longing for sun, spice, sailing and temples; for mountains, scented air and neon-signed madnesses. It burns me to distraction.
Having thoroughly jobbed and married, there’s no longer the option of upping and offing. But the absence of it stings. I’ll soothe it with holidays, which will take the edge off my wanderlust. Yet it’s still there, chomping away at tendons and heartchords in the dark.
Luckily, I have just been to Mexico for the first time. 1940s Mexico. And also a sojourn to early 50s America. Which helps. For in a world where I’m tied to ‘Holborn’, ‘Liverpool Street’ and ‘Mansion House’, novels create for me a map filled with quite different names – Isla Pixol, Teotihuacan, Xochimilco. Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible (one of my top 10 books, read it immediately), has brought Mexico simmering to life in the tense context of the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, with the guest of little old Trotsky. All through the eyes of a cook turned secretary turned writer, and what a writer – when Kingsolver gives us a glimpse of narrator Shepherd’s full writing ability (most of the novel is in the form of his informal notebooks) the unique vision is both beautiful and astounding. You wish for more of this virtuoso writing, which only is ever given wing for short sections. But Kingsolver has a tight control of the story which she steers tightly, ensuring that this fairly lengthy book has an admirable ebb and flow of pace.
What starts as a tale of childhood, family, markets and schools soon turns political. The Lacuna argues for freedom: both the freedom to explore your ideas and beliefs unpersecuted, and the freedom to keep ones privacy and individuality and live as one wishes. But despite the protagonist’s desperation for privacy – borne from his forbidden homosexuality and the wild dependency of his mother – the book comes down on the side of the bravery of making your beliefs public – whether through art (Kahlo), politics (Trotsky), or literature (Shepherd.) It’s this element that lifts it above good writing to make it an inspiring read.
This was my first trip to Mexico, and though I would much prefer to touch down in Mexico City myself, Kingsolver gave me a delightful and historically educational alternative. I must accept that books are the best I’m going to get for the time being – with one exception: restaurants. Do I really, I wonder while licking my fingers with unhygienic langour, need to go to Vietnam once I’ve eaten a plateful of crisp coriander-packed rice paper rolls dunked in spice-tingled, redolent, sticky dipping sauce? Well, yes, I do – but while I wait for the right time, I’ll be reading and eating my way around the globe. Next stop: India.