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Bárbara Mujica's Frida

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Frida

Mujica, Bárbara. New York: The Overlook Press, 2001. 366 p., $26.95, hardcover. ISBN 0452283035.

Most discussions of the legendary Frida Kahlo and her work -- mostly self-exploratory, sometimes violent expressions of her tormented emotions -- embrace Kahlo as a voice for the masses, a representative of Mexico's spirit since she became famous at the time of its revolution. At first known as the wife of the famous muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo eventually became renowned as a painter in her own right, despite her lack of formal artistic training. But did she really speak for the voiceless, or was she an opportunist who rode the wave of revolutionary fervor, the architect of an enduring public image? There is a renewed interest in the life of the petite woman with the faint mustache and the thick eyebrows, whose pain and suffering exploded onto her canvas and whose death remains a mystery. A movie will be released in October 2002, starring Salma Hayek as Kahlo, and Barbara Mujica's brilliant novel, Frida (2001), takes a fictional look at Kahlo's life.

Born to a Jewish-German father and a mother who was half-Indian and half-Spanish, Kahlo's sense of identity is very much at the center of her art and her legend. She contracted polio as a child, which left her lame, and then survived a bus wreck, which affected her for the rest of her life. She would endure as many as thirty-five operations as a result of this accident, which severely damaged her spine. Her physical deformities also played havoc on her self-esteem, which affected her marriage to the Casanova-like Diego Rivera. Their tumultuous marriage, which included a divorce and a remarriage, captured newspaper headlines and the attention of their international fans, much as Kahlo captured the hearts of the Mexican public.

However, Mujica's novel deconstructs that image of the great artist -- the woman who changed her age to make her birth year coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution. Mujica's portrait is an ambivalent one, depicting Kahlo as both selfish and temperamental, but also as a woman who endured tremendous suffering. Narrated by Kahlo's younger sister, Christina, the novel consists of a series of flashbacks as told to Christina's American psychiatrist long after Kahlo's death. Mujica often stays true to the factual, but also allows herself the freedom to delve into the possible. For example, Kahlo did indeed have a younger sister named Christina, and the two eventually became rivals for the affections of the womanizing Rivera. However, Mujica imaginatively plays on the possibilities of that jealousy, and makes Christina a central character, even giving her a role in the death of Kahlo.

In this novel, Frida Kahlo emerges, not as the symbol of Mexican spirit, but as an individual who spun lies about herself to build her image and whose identity spanned many categories: Jew, woman, disabled, bisexual, artist, revolutionary and sister. It is perhaps in the last role that Kahlo, demanding constant attention and praise, does not fully succeed. Christina grows up in the shadow of her older sister, whom everyone considers to be smarter, more creative, and more promising. Their father, a famous photographer, dotes on Frida and believes in her intellectual ability; he sends her to the elite National Preparatory School, while Christina works to help supplement her family's income. Christina seeks recognition and attention from the family by fulfilling the traditional role of every daughter -- to marry a decent man and to produce grandchildren. However, before her sister's wedding, Frida is involved in the bus accident, during which her pelvis is impaled with a piece of iron. While the family becomes centered on Frida's every need, Christina sees this as just another occasion in which her sister steals the spotlight. "It just didn't seem fair," she says, "because Frida was the one who had always been the troublemaker....I should have been the star, since I was the one getting married. I was doing everything right, wasn't I? I was playing by the rules."

Bur Kahlo has suffered before, in many ways. Though she survives polio as a child, her affliction leaves her lame, with a "withering right leg" that "hung from her body like a dead snake." Her disability makes her the butt of her classmates' taunts; they dub her "peg-leg Frida," and she develops a tough exterior, never admitting how deeply her disability bothers her. Later in life, as her sense of personal style and glamour evolves, she takes great pains to adorn herself with flowers in her hair, colorful dresses and jewelry to distract attention from what she considers to be her physical flaw. Mujica shows us the construction of Kahlo's image, motivated by vanity and a besieged sense of self-esteem.

The image of the glamorous, rebellious, revolutionary artist is also supported by Kahlo's fashion sense; she makes Mexican indigenous culture the vogue. During her public appearances and in her self-portraits, she dressed exclusively in Tejuana skirts, colorful blouses and shawls, and ethnic earrings and necklaces. She was "pretending to be an Indian," according to her sister, and she put on a show particularly for her growing American audiences. She later laughed to her sister about the silly-looking white women who tried to imitate her clothing. Christina criticizes her sister's carefully designed image: "She said it was to show her solidarity with the peasants, but there was more to it than that. Frida didn't look anything like a peasant. Are you kidding? With her bright red nails, drop-dead makeup, and elaborate hairdos? Do you think peasant women have the time to braid their hair a zillion times with different-colored yarn?"

So who was Frida Kahlo? In the frenzy of revolutionary culture, she was a heroine and an icon. In Mujica's fictional exploration, she was a woman who, according to Rivera, "loves to suffer" and "be miserable and make everybody else miserable with her. It's her greatest pleasure."

Susan Muaddi Darraj