Magical realism and recipes combine in this fictional biography of the iconic Mexican painter.
Actual notebooks discovered after Kahlo’s death have never been published. Mexican novelist Haghenbeck (Bitter Drink, 2012) bases his version of her life on an imagined notebook called The Sacred Herbs Book in which Kahlo ties her favorite recipes to key moments and relationships in her life—the recipes are included in the text, then revised for an appendix directed overtly to book clubs. The novel follows the factual chronology of Kahlo’s life: her childhood polio, the bus accident in which she was severely injured and from which she never fully recovered, her tumultuous two marriages to Diego Rivera, her failure to have children, her many operations, her development as a painter, her early death when she was 47. Kahlo’s paintings are filled with her communistic politics and Mexican nationalism while offering a searing self-portrait of her sensuality and the physical pain she persistently endured while satisfying her huge appetite for life. The brightly colored surreal vision of Kahlo’s art informs both the childlike tone of the prose and the mysticism with which Haghenbeck adoringly surrounds his subject. The Day of the Dead is the novel’s central motif and the inevitability of death its theme. Kahlo, an atheist but highly spiritual, is warned by a “messenger” riding a white horse whenever someone is about to die. She knows her own life will last until her pet rooster dies, because she has made a deal with the ghostly “godmother” who will lead her into death—Kahlo will live when she should have died after the bus accident, but she will sacrifice with great suffering. Her ruminations on the meaning of life and death with various famous lovers, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Leon Trotsky, are full of gravitas but tend to run together after awhile, not unlike the recipes themselves.
Despite the repetitiousness and pretentious hyperbola that drags on this novel, Kahlo remains a rich character and inevitably irresistible.