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Book Review: The Incantation Of Frida K. by Kate Braverman

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Imagine what it would feel like if your body became a trap. Your mind and your spirit are still strong, and you haven't changed a bit inside your head. You have the same urges, desires, ambitions, and beliefs you've always had, but now you can do nothing to follow through on or fulfill them. Because you've always been a realist, you can't deny the evidence that in spite of your mental health, you are dying and there's nothing anyone can do about it.

Making matters worse is the fact that you are an extremely creative and intelligent person with a vivid imagination. Not only has your body finally failed you; it has also become a burden inflicting continual pain. Morphine and Demerol offer the relief of escape, but who knows what tricks it may be playing on your brain when you surrender to the oblivion their embrace offers. As more and more medication is required to bring peace, the further you slip away from reality and the less your thoughts become your own.

As a child the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was stricken with polio, leaving one leg withered and weak. When she was a teenager, the trolley car she was riding in was involved in a collision that shattered her pelvis, broke her back, and left her impaled on a metal rod. After six months in hospital, she endured another year in a body cast while her spine mended.

Kate Braverman.jpgIt was during that year in bed that she first began to paint. As the only subject she had at hand was herself, she began her life's work of documenting and depicting herself in relation to the rest of the world. On some level, she must have known that her time was limited and made the decision to live as full a life as was possible for her. So when she found herself at the end of her time, stuck in bed, dependent upon family and drugs for succour, none of us can have any idea as to what affect it might have had on her ability to separate reality from illusion.

It is said that the creative and imaginative mind of the artist, combined with the heightened emotional sensitivity that is the invariable companion, is already a few steps closer to the edge of sanity than others. What would have gone through the mind of Frida Kahlo during those final months of her life while she lay waiting for death to come and give her final release from the prison her body had become? While we may never know for sure, Kate Braverman's novel The Incantation Of Frida K. is a fictionalized journey into those depths.

Published by Seven Stories Press and distributed in Canada by the Publishers Group Canada, The Incantation Of Frida K. is a journey into the mind of a person who seems to no longer be able to distinguish reality from illusion. Why else would she describe her relationship with her husband Diego Rivera as one long foray into sexual perversion? The accident that maimed her when she was a teenager also, she is now convinced, stole her femininity and turned her into a man.

In her mind, she now sees her initial sexual experience with Diego as homosexual, with her being a boy named Pierre. Her opinion of herself has been so degraded by her current circumstances that she is unable to view her life as being anything more than a plaything or doll that Diego used as a prop to promote his own career as an artist. Throughout her life Frida was known for her habit of wearing the traditional clothes of the Mayan and Incan people who were Mexico's first inhabitants. In fact, she was so fascinated with pre-Columbian imagery her paintings drew heavily upon it in both style and content.

But in her distorted view of the world she now sees it as nothing more than another means of keeping her imprisoned and denying her an identity. While it's true that Diego Rivera was a lousy husband and had affairs continually during their marriage, Frida didn't just pine away at home. She had her share of affairs with both men and women, sometimes even with the same woman that Diego was sleeping with. Although she did divorce him at one time, they also remarried, and all biographies say that in spite of everything they loved each other deeply.

frida_kahlo.jpgBraverman's Frida claims that Diego continuously disparaged her paintings and diminished her accomplishments as an artist. According to the recent movie Frida, which was based on the well-received biography of the same name by Hayden Herrera, Diego was in actual fact an ardent supporter of Frida's work, and continually encouraged her while praising its quality as being superior to his.

Braverman does not claim to have written a biography, or anything other than a fictionalized supposition of what Frida's state of mind might have been in her last days. Taken in that context, this is an amazing piece of writing that takes us on a journey through the avenues and byways of a mind teetering on the edge of sanity. On occasion Frida K. will have moments of lucidity where she admits to creating an imaginary daughter, and in the next instance she will refer to the daughter in conversation as if she were real.

Braverman shows an incredible understanding of the potential for disaster that is a continual threat to the creative, sensitive mind. Her language, while graphic and realistic, manages to transcend the morbidity of the subject matter to achieve a kind of poetic beauty. Maybe not beauty in the sense of 'oh, isn't that nice', but the kind of absolute beauty that comes with recognizing something as a work of art.

Ultimately The Incantation Of Frida K. is an artistic interpretation of a state of mind utilizing the potential within Frida Kahlo's life for her to have descended to that level. Disease and trauma exerted a huge toll upon the woman the world knew as Frida Kahlo, leaving her imprisoned by her body for a good deal of her life. The majority of her artwork reflected the pain and disappointment she experienced because of that and there is no way of knowing how it affected her mental and emotional state.

On no account do I think this book should be taken as a factual representation of Frida Kahlo's last days on earth. However, as a work of fiction that depicts how the artistic mind under certain circumstances can turn a person into their own worst enemy, this is a work of brilliance. Read it keeping that in mind and you won't be disappointed.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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