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Review: Frida’s Bed by Slavenka Drakulić

May 30, 2009

Frida's BedSlavenka Drakulić’s novel Frida’s Bed is an emotionally compelling work that shows tremendous respect for the artistic accomplishments of Frida Kahlo. Unfortunately, the work sometimes falls short in its explorations of Kahlo’s internal life.

The novel (as the cover calls it, though I think it might be better classed as a novella) alternates between third and first person to the story of Kahlo’s life, beginning and ending with her on her death bed. At times, these shifts are jarring and seem to serve little purpose, except perhaps allowing the author to skip over the challenges of imagining the artist’s feelings and take on the situation directly. On the other hand, this could be seen as a sort of respect for the artist’s ultimately unknowable subjectivity, and the occasional awkward changeover could be an artifact of Christina P. Zorić’s translation.

More problematic are the italicized passages in which the third person becomes the voice of an art critic. These passages perform the bulk of the work of connecting Kahlo’s life to her painting, but they do not provide anything particularly insightful or new in terms of art criticism; these are the standard interpretations and descriptions you would find in any book on Frida Kahlo. A novel, a re-imagining, should do more. It might have worked better had Drakulić used the artist’s own voice to make the connection more deeply, as she begins to do in places.

The exploration of gender and power in Kahlo’s relationship with the Maestro, Diego Rivera, seems similarly shallow. Drakulić seems to suggest that it is the excuses that Kahlo makes for Rivera—that her own crippled body couldn’t be desirable and that as an artist—that account for the power imbalance; the unintended result is the suggestion that had Kahlo not been disabled she might have been able to set her own terms in the relationship. This seems highly unlikely to say the least. Such inaccuracies could be excused, were the book written entirely in first person, as they would reflect Kahlo’s thoughts alone. That is not, however, the case here.

Despite such weaknesses, the book gains emotional power from its portrayal of pain as a constant force: Drakulić draws on her own experience with chronic pain to depict how it wears even the strongest person down and how it changes one’s outlook. Kahlo is portrayed as a woman who struggled for as much as she could have, more than anyone would have expected for her, and it is that tremendous effort that gives the conclusion of the work such impact.

Frida’s Bed by Slavenka Drakulić; translated by Christina P. Zorić; Penguin Books, 2008; paperback, 162 pp.

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