By JOE AUCIELLO
Kate Braverman, “The Incantation of Frida K,” (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002), 235 pp., $23.95,
Meaghan Delahunt, “In the Casa Azul,”(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 308 pp., $23.95
During the past two decades Mexican painter Frida Kahlo has captured the popular imagination as few artists do. Following the appearance of a biography in 1983, her paintings have been widely reproduced in numerous books, and her journal has been published as well.
Kahlo has become an icon of artistic self-expression, a symbol of a woman who, despite painful and lifelong suffering following a debilitating auto accident, triumphed in life by creating intense and enduring portraits in art.
Her work has also inspired other artists; plays and poems have been written about her. A biographical film starring Salma Hayek was featured this August at the Venice Film Festival, and the U.S. release is scheduled for October. Also, within months of each other, two novels based on Kahlo’s life have been published.
The conflicts in these books center on Kahlo’s relationships with two men: her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (whose fame, in their lifetime, eclipsed Kahlo’s) and the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. Rivera influenced the Mexican government to admit the exiled Bolshevik in 1937, and it was in Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, where the Dewey Commission exonerated Trotsky from the lies of the Moscow Trials.
Despite their factual basis, the novels depart severely from historical accuracy. Ms. Delahunt bases her entire work on the brief affair between Kahlo and Trotsky, giving it an importance that it simply did not have. Ms. Braverman depicts Kahlo’s relationships as if they were battles in an epic war and turns men into monsters.
“In the Casa Azul” portrays Trotsky as a swooning schoolboy, continually dreaming of romance with Frida. Ms. Delahunt imagines Trotsky wistfully contemplating a self-portrait of Kahlo, placed prominently above his writing desk, moments before he was murdered by an assassin. This is intended to show that Trotsky was still consumed by his love for the bewitching Kahlo.
The author has taken impermissible liberties with the truth. For instance, while Kahlo did in fact paint a self-portrait inscribed to Trotsky, he had returned it three years earlier when he left the “Casa Azul” and broke off personal and political relations with Rivera and Kahlo.
Ms. Delahunt mixes up or distorts smaller details. She envisions Trotsky, during the Russian civil war of 1918-1921, daydreaming about novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s depictions of Paris. Trotsky did in fact read some French literature during this period, and he did write a significant essay of Celine’s first book, but that novel was not published until 1932. Obviously, then, Trotsky could not have read it a dozen years earlier.
Nor did Trotsky’s Mexican bodyguards become suspicious of his assassin and race to prevent the murder, arriving only moments too late. In fact, the American guards suspected nothing. Ms. Delahunt’s melodrama only diminishes the tragedy.
In “The Incantation of Frida K,” Ms. Braverman makes Trotsky into an egotistical monster who brutalizes Kahlo. There is no justifiable basis in real life for this kind of portraiture. According to the eye-witness accounts, Kahlo was the more daring of the two and probably initiated the affair, perhaps as emotional revenge against her husband’s repeated infidelities. She soon ended it before a jealous Rivera discovered the truth.
Readers of these novels would not learn that Kahlo eventually joined the Communist Party in Mexico and became a fervent admirer of Stalin. After his death in 1953, Kahlo wrote in her diary, “THE WORLD, MEXICO, ALL THE UNIVERSE have lost their balance with the loss of Stalin.” His portrait, left unfinished at her death a year later, was the last she worked on.
Perhaps these facts are omitted from the novels because the plain truth would make Kahlo a less sympathetic figure for contemporary readers. But doesn’t the novelist have the right, even the obligation, to use facts as needed in order to tell a story well?
Howard Zinn, in the afterword to the new edition of “A People’s History of the United States,” argues that “there is no such thing as a pure fact, innocent of interpretation.” He presents a convincing case. But interpreting is not quite the same as ignoring, much less inventing. Even the creative license of the novelist has its limits, constraints less definite than the historian’s perhaps, but limits nonetheless.
These novels pose, in passing, important literary questions. What is the purpose of historical fiction, of art that blends the imaginary and real? More pointedly, what is the legitimacy of historical fiction that ignores or alters history for the purpose of fiction? Do novels such as these signify the evolution of a literary form or its debasement?
If the classical justification for art-to delight and instruct-still holds true, then these books can be faulted for slighting “instruction” (truthful presentation of moral themes) for the end of promoting “delight,” or entertainment. To write an “entertainment,” though, is to create literary junk food with words as empty calories.
This concoction may satisfy the casual reader or the historical novice, but it does so at the expense of literary substance, the very quality that causes a book to linger in the mind long after the pages are shut.