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Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo: Frida as a Visionary

I'm interested in Frida Kahlo, but so many books about her focus on the personal tragedy of her accident and its impact rather than her work, her immersion in native Mexican culture, her feminism or her relationship with artists other than her husband.  The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F. G. Haghenbeck looked like it would be different.


This is the first book I've seen that deals with Frida's childhood and teen years before the accident.  Haghenbeck depicts her as a naughty prankster and as an adventurous athletically active young adult.  What a different side of her! Unfortunately, Haghenbeck unrealistically portrays Frida as being athletic after her accident.  She had a shattered pelvis and many unsuccessful surgeries.  This is a magical realist novel, but there are limits to what I'm willing to accept. Although I don't want a novel that focuses on her injuries, I also don't want one that seeks to nullify them.  This is an important flaw in The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo.

Yet I'm particularly interested in this book's portrayal of Frida as a visionary, and her devotion to Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) along with other Mexican religious customs despite her scorn for conventional religion.  Frida considered herself a Communist.  Communists are supposed to be thoroughgoing materialists, but I've been noticing some interesting anomalies like Brazilian Communist Jorge Amado's relationship with Candomble , and Frida's with Mexican folk religion.

Haghenbeck has Frida dreaming of being in a cemetery after her accident and speaking to La Llorona who is conceptualized in this book as the Goddess of Death. Frida is depicted as making an offering to La Llorona every year on Dia de los Muertos. Here is a very interesting page from an academic website about her : La Llorona   I don't get the impression that she was ancient.  She seems to be a post-Conquest myth and is usually depicted as a ghost.  In Aztec religion the ghosts of women who died in childbirth became powerful spirits called Cihuateteos.  In this book Frida and Diego are told by a tour guide that La Llorona is a Cihuateteo.  These spirits are conventionally regarded as demonic.  For a contrasting feminist revisionist view that Frida would probably have supported see Cihuateteo Essay by Anne Key.  I realize that scholars would not approve of this article, but I found Key's perspective very striking and in keeping with the subject of this review.

Nelson Rockefeller, who commissioned a mural from Diego that he later destroyed because it was so blatantly Communist, is a character in this novel.  It's intriguing that Rockefeller plays a spiritual role.  He tells Frida about an African American  tradition dealing with ancestor spirits that I thought was wonderful.  It sounded like an Americanized version of an African belief . It's unlikely that Nelson Rockefeller would have known about it, but I found that scene very charming. 

There are a number of other real personages from the 1930's who appear in this novel that play more expected roles, but I enjoyed seeing them.  Other readers may enjoy the recipes included, and the remarks that Haghenbeck has Frida writing about the context of these recipes.  This book is not perfect by any means, but I did find it to be a very good read. 

 In Haghenbeck's version, Frida isn't always in the process of dying.  She is very much alive and ahead of her time. This is why she is far more appreciated now than she was in the 1930's. 


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