On the Docket: Frida’s Bed by Slavenka Drakulic (Translated by Christina P. Zoric)

Genre: Translated Fiction (Croatian)

The Plot: Dead at the age of forty seven, famed artist Frida Khalo recounts her life and memories in a fantastical narrative from her death bed. She relives her painful and debilitating bouts with polio, a horrific vehicle accident that would wreck havoc on her body for the rest of her life, as well as her troubled marriage to fellow artist, the Maestro. Alternating between first and third person, the story of Khalo’s difficult and painful life is expertly threaded together by Drakulic’s blunt, yet effective prose.

First Impressions: I should probably start by saying that I unintentionally divided this book in half. I started reading it about a month ago, and just recently decided to finish it. I had temporarily lost interest in the narrative, mainly due to one thing. I am quite surprised by my own reasoning but it seems that I have difficulty digesting novels without chapters, or divisions of some kind. It allows my mind to breathe, take a moment, and think, before turning the page to continue the story. I notice that novels without chapters or divisions take on a very dense, philosophical feel. I also reacted similarly to Snowman by David Albahari, which was formatted in the same way. Although both books are very well written, with magnificent prose and pitch perfect language, I found myself weighed down by the force of Drakulic’s novel, a text thick with emotional betrayal and physical pain. Perhaps I’m a little more old fashioned than I realized because I didn’t anticipate the simple act of omitting chapter divisions would alter my reading experience so greatly. What do you think? How do you feel about novels without chapters?

This issue aside, I was thoroughly touched by the prose of Frida’s Bed, by Frida’s voice as an artist, a woman, and human being, trying to find a place for herself:

That early July morning Frida woke up in her bed at her parents’ house. A faint light was already creeping into the room. She had spent a restless night. With an effort, she turned over, propped herself up on the pillows and touched her face as if to make sure that it was still there. She lay there quite still for a while, looking at her arms on the bedcover, then ran her fingers through her hair- her face, her hair, her hands, they were all parts of what had once been a whole. She tried to get out of bed, but then gave up. She had no strength left. Her mind was troubled.

I was also very captivated by Frida’s battle with femininity. She was constantly trying to understand why her body had abandoned her, betrayed her, while other women have perfectly whole bodies, beings without broken bones, smooth and silky skin. She learns to understand her own passion for art and life, but never seems to manage this feat without the Maestro. Until her final breath, she feels bound to him in some way, whether it be a maternal relationship or a romantic one.

With time, she became brutally direct. In her later self-portraits she was no longer beautiful, merely odd-looking. She did not seduce, she simply drew attention to herself. Her face became hard, serious. The pronounced cheekbones and heavy eyebrows looked as if they had been carved out of stone. The stern black eyes looked either straight through or straight past the viewer. She deliberately exaggerated the brutality of her self-portraits. She was saying: Look at me, I’m alive and it hurts.

Frida’s Bed also provides an extensive analysis of Khalo’s work from what appears to be a distant third person. It could very well be Drakulic’s voice but it’s vague enough to make the reader uncertain.

Final Verdict: The writing is intense but very touching. The novel as a whole, on the other hand, challenged my patience, which is certainly a good thing. I think it’s helpful to encounter a book that dares you to try harder, to be a more attentive reader. I would consider re-reading Frida’s Bed, if only to re-immerse myself in the fantastic narrative. (Alas, it’s due back at the library soon.)