Thursday 9 August 2012

A Lacuna

          A lacuna: a gap or missing piece
                          a tunnel, or passage, leading from one place to another

Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna is one of the most powerful and compelling novels I have ever read and would definitely be among the ten I would take on a desert island with me.

It is a tender, tragic, optimistic novel with deeply compelling characters, a clear grasp of how history and public opinion can shape a life, and an unforgettable portrait of the artist and art itself -  amongst other things.

There are so many quotes from the novel that I cherish and I shared one in this blog last year . I will share one more:

Trosky's unshakeable resolve makes Shepherd wonder: 'Is that what makes a man a revolutionary? The belief he's entitled to joy, rather than submission?'

Another thing that really fascinated me was the lacuna itself. This is how Kingsolver describes the lacuna:

At the base  of that cliff, something lay under the water that can't be seen from a boat. A dark something, or really a dark nothing, a great deep hole in the rock. It was a cave, big enough to dive down and crawl into. ...A water-path tunneling into the rock... It is called something already, la lacuna.

I found the whole idea of a lacuna fascinating and it took me quite some time to realise that there is one near where I live in Athens which is in fact one of my favourite places for swimming.

It is called Vouliagmeni lake - Vouliagmeni means 'the sunken one'. It looks like a volcanic crater full of water and it is a very mysterious place. It was once an underground cavern that collapsed following an earthquake, hence the name.

A small brackish water lake, part fresh and part seawater.

It is fed from underground channels from the sea  (this is a channel that runs towards the sea, so it could be the beginning of an underground channel,  perhaps)

and a lot of underground channels that seem to lead towards Mount Hymettus.

It continues deep inside the mountain in an underwater cave never fully explored, even though loads of experienced divers have tried. Its end seems impossible to explore even by sonar detection. Many underwater expeditions have been carried out in order to chart it, and three experienced divers disappeared while trying to explore the many undersea caves that feed the lake.

This is not what happens in The Lacuna where the boy (or Insolito, as he is called by Frida Kahlo, or Shepherd as he is known later when he is in the USA during the dark times of the McCarthy era) discovers the opening of the lacuna in the sea and dives in

Today the lacuna is gone....The lacuna came back. In the afternoon the rock opened its mouth and swallowed the boy down its gullet...

holds his breath and comes out at the other end,

At the end of the tunnel the cave opens up to light, a small saltwater pool in the jungle...

There are orange and yellow floats all around the lake marking the areas where people can swim. Going beyond the floats is not allowed as it is deemed dangerous (there are passages and water caves behind these rocks that can only be seen once you swim near the rocks). Some people do however, and I am one of them when Ken is not around - it is thrilling and scary in equal parts and the mystery of the lake increases ten-fold.

We walked out an ancient stone roadbed to the mouth of a lacuna. A cenote, it's called here: a deep, round hole in limestone cliffs for its sides and blue water at the bottom.... The view from above was dizzying, down the sheer rock face of the hole to the water far below. No handrail stood at the cliff's edge to prevent our falling in. Or diving in, swimming down deep to see what is there, the devil or the sea

And there are the fish - tiny, black and hungry. They were put there in order to keep the lake clean: the water does not circulate as much as it does in the sea and what these fish do is eat dead skin cells. They are the same fish that are used in pedicure parlours at the moment, the latest craze for exfoliation.

You cannot afford to stay still even for a second in the lake as they start nibbling at your feet - harmless but extremely ticklish.

The water is full of minerals: potassium, natrium, lithium, iodine, ammonium, calcium, ferrum, chloride. These minerals are known for giving relief to bone and muscle problems and have many other healing properties. That, plus the constant temperature of 22oC - 26oC means that the lake functions as an all-year round spa.

The average age of the users is 70+ and many come to the lake following their doctor's recommendation. Things change during weekends when the lake is full of families, young people and lots of children.

The rope in the middle functions as an aid for people's exercises.

I love swimming in the lake. The sea is at the end of our street in Athens so I go for a swim most days and it is delightful: fun, pleasurable and excellent exercise. The best swims are on the islands however, and the lake features with the islands at the top of the list.

Why do I like swimming in the lake so much? I like long active swims, so when in the sea for instance, I will swim from one end of the bay to the other, but this, however pleasurable, does not have the interest that the lake holds: I swim around the lake, coast to coast so to speak, and the scenery changes all the time, as the rock formations change. It takes me 20 minutes to swim around the lake, and I will go round twice, then will sit gazing at the lake for the same amount of time, 40 minutes, then back for the same swim, and so on.

But the main reason is that something happens to me in the lake. It is the nearest I come to a religious experience, to mysticism, and that is something, for a materialist like myself. The only other place I have felt like that was in Santorini where the feeling was so much stronger. I have been to Santorini only the once, and felt awed by the grandeur of the landscape and the energy that it generates. Oblivious to the masses of tourists, all I wanted was to sit on the cliff edge and stare at the caldera and the volcano - people who have gone to Iceland testify to the same feelings as I, and many others, have felt in Santorini. I think that we quite often tend to underestimate the power nature and the landscape has over us.

So the lake beckons, draws me to it, and I feel a oneness when I am there, be it in the water or on the shore.

The Mayans built their towns and civilization on these cenotes, because no sacred thing is more holy than a water source. The entire Yacatan Peninsula has not a single river or stream running on its surface, only these water caves running below, with round mouths opening here and there to the light above. Chi-chen means 'mouth of the world', and so it is, these gasping mouths are as old as human dread.


  1. Wonderful juxtapositions of fiction and reality...please would you put this on the reading group blog as well for others to read?

    1. Thanks, Avril.

      I am not sure I know how to do this, but I will try....

  2. Wow, looks great. I feel like diving in to cool off (now it's actually got warm over here in England)

    I agree with you about the Barbara Kingsolver novel. A great epic story about a radical subject.

    1. It is a great place - I was there again this morning and did not want to come back!

      Having done this post has made me think about the novel a lot and I am wondering whether a third reading is due. It is such a wonderful book.