Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2018

Frida’s Bed, by Slavenka Drakulić, Translated by Christina Pribićević-Zorić #BookReview

Slavenka Drakulić is a notable Croatian journalist, novelist, and essayist whose first novel S. (also known as As If I Am Not There) has the rare distinction of being a work of translated fiction by a woman that’s included in 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die.   Goodreads tells me that she has been recognised as one of the most influential European writers of our time.  She writes both fiction and non-fiction, exploring political and ideological issues of the communist and post-communist era, war crimes and the female body.  Having now read her fifth novel, a fictionalised study of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, I would suggest that she’s also interested in forms of courage and endurance that we might not always recognise.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) was a well-known self-taught Mexican artist:

[She] painted many portraits, self-portraits, and works inspired by the nature and artifacts of Mexico. Inspired by the country’s popular culture, she employed a naïve folk art style to explore questions of identity, postcolonialism, gender, class, and race in Mexican society. Her paintings often had strong autobiographical elements and mixed realism with fantasy. In addition to belonging to the post-revolutionary Mexicayotl movement, which sought to define a Mexican identity, Kahlo has been described as a surrealist or magical realist.

Kahlo’s work has been celebrated internationally as emblematic of Mexican national and Indigenous traditions, and by feminists for what is seen as its uncompromising depiction of the female experience and form.  (Wikipedia, viewed 7/3/18, edited to remove hyperlinks).

Drakulić, however, explores the relationship between Kahlo’s physical suffering and her art.  Kahlo was disabled by childhood polio and then by an horrific accident when she was a teenager.  She endured numerous operations and suffered constant pain throughout her life – but in this novel she is shown to have transcended the limitations of her body through courage and endurance that is more commonly ascribed to men.  She abhorred pity and was fiercely independent.  She also, in her numerous self-portraits, challenged the stereotypes of female beauty, and refused to be an invisible ‘cripple’ but instead drew attention to herself with a flamboyant style of dress.

This edition has nothing to say about Drakulić’s sources for the novel, but I assume that the bare bones of it are based on Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (1983), by the art historian Hayden Herrera.  But whether the ideas and emotions portrayed are drawn from diaries and journals or from Drakulić’s imagination and her interpretations of Kahlo’s artworks is hard to say.  Artists often don’t record their feelings in words; if they could do that, they wouldn’t need to paint.  Whatever about that, the novel asks the reader to take what is there on face value, and it is a convincing portrait of a great artist determined not to be defined by her body.

Actually, at only 162 pages, it’s more of a novella, and that seems to be a perfect length for it.  Towards the end, when Kahlo’s health has deteriorated severely and her ebullient spirit is fading, the ending beckons as a liberation for a very courageous woman.

Highly recommended.

Author: Slavenka Drakulić,
Title: Frida’s Bed, a novel (Frida ili o boli)
Translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribićević-Zorić
Publisher: Penguin, 2008, first published 2007
ISBN: 9780143114154
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond: Frida’s Bed;


Responses

  1. Oooh, I’ll look out for this. I read the Frida biog but this sounds like an excellent addition to that.

    • I don’t know how I missed it when it was first published!

  2. I find Frida Khalo interesting. I’ve seen the movie and as it happens have a 2018 Frida Khalo calendar. I don’t mind fictionalised treatments of subjects I don’t know much about, but in this case I’d probably rather read the biography.

    • I find her self-portraits endlessly fascinating, especially compared to the photos of her which are always B&W. So I liked the way she came alive for me in this book.
      I might see if I can get hold of a copy of the film from the library…


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