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Remembering Frida

Kate Braverman's The Incantation of Frida K.

I say, if you have a chance to read about a subject before the inevitable bio-pic, do it. In this case, the race is on to understand visual artist Frida Kahlo before inconagrapher Salma Hayek does it for you with the film, Frida, scheduled for release this fall. Author Kate Braverman offers an antidote with a dream melody of a book, The Incantation of Frida K.

The book's platform is Frida's deathbed, where she is succumbing to a brutal mix of Demerol and pneumonia. Thus, the plot motion is that of a woman musing on her past, nonchronologically. Much of this can be confusing to a person completely unfamiliar with Kahlo's life but even the foreigner will ease into the book when he or she recognizes two benchmark moments that dominate: the tram accident in which Kahlo's spine was "skewered on a handrail," leaving her in physical pain for most of her adult life, and her marriage to muralist Diego Rivera, which left her in emotional pain for most of her adult life.

The book begins during the period Kahlo spent in a plaster torso cast, recalling the Kahlo of age 18 . Braverman writes: "Did you know they sealed me into a cast for one entire year? It was a premature burial where I kept breathing under dirt. They did this repeatedly, gathered my crushed bones like wildflowers and used plaster as a vase." The artistic metaphors are not misplaced. During these months, Kahlo first began to paint. This event also foreshadows Kahlo's miscarriages and her meditations on her imaginary daughter, Flora.

As for the coupling with Rivera, a man 21 years her senior, Braverman creates scenes in which Rivera can act his multi-layered role as father, lover, mentor, torturer and betrayer. Via Rivera, Kahlo gains increased visibility in the artworld, but becomes virtually imprisoned at home. They marry, divorce and remarry. He has numerous affairs, including one with Kahlo's sister, Cristina.

Kahlo also has affairs, experiments with wearing suits, smokes marijuana and opium and dabbles in lesbianism. Braverman explains the marriage's longevity by saying, via Kahlo: "We had lost our immunity to one another." In the best Platonic dialogue, Braverman says, via Rivera: "I made you laugh, Chiquita," Diego complains. And voice softer, "You don't tell that story. I accommodated. I amused. We were partners."

Braverman's c/v includes three novels, four books of poetry and two collections of short stories. She writes of contemporary life. So why the focus on Kahlo?

The answer crystalizes as one reads the final passages of Incantation. Here, a modern woman shuns community projects, drinks too much vodka, but religioiusly tends to her vegetable garden. The butt of all gossip, this marginalized woman endures. In her best clipped tone, Braverman writes, "She does not remember Frida."

The Incantation of Frida K.
By Kate Braverman
Seven Stories Press; ISBN: 1-58322-469-6
Hardcover: 235 pages (August 2002)