At 18 years of age, the now iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo nearly died in a streetcar accident. She was left with a crippled back and leg that destined her to a life of pain, but also as novelist F.G. Haghenbeck writes, an intense desire to live.
In "The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo," Haghenbeck takes readers on a fictional portrait of her life before and after the crash, fused with recipes for pozole, chicken tostadas, orange shortbreads and other delicacies that offer another glimpse into her story.
As Haghenbeck envisions it, Kahlo makes a pact with the spirit of death after the crash: She will survive but suffering will haunt her.
To honor the agreement, Kahlo makes an offering of food each Day of the Dead, the Mexican holiday in which the deceased are allowed to return to Earth and are greeted with altars of orange marigolds, pastries and photographs. Kahlo keeps her recipes in a notebook, "El Libro de Hierba Santa" or "The Hierba Santa Book." The notebook is a gift from photographer Tina Modotti and comes inscribed with the words, "Have the courage to live because anyone can die."
By now, the narrative of Kahlo's life is well known: She never fully recovers from her injuries, and equally or more difficult is the emotional anguish she endures from husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera's constant infidelities. Painting is her only real refuge.
"When the brush carried the wedded colors to the canvas, she stopped crying and her soul felt a comforting calm," Haghenbeck writes. "For the first time in her life, Frida felt something that set her apart from the world, which offered her the succulence of sex, the pleasure of good food, and the composure of a woman. She felt free."
"The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo" doesn't offer any stirring revelations into Kahlo's already mythic life, but it is still a delicious read as Haghenbeck weaves stories of her relationships with artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Pablo Picasso with recipes for the foods that sweetened their encounters.
Haghenbeck imagines Kahlo's talents as a cook beginning from a desire to keep Rivera at home and away from his mistresses. After learning a few recipes from Rivera's own ex-wife, she begins delivering him baskets of food decorated with flowers as he works on his murals, and soon becomes known for her culinary delights among the many artists, intellectuals and patrons who visit their home.
"To live life you have to season it," she tells the Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. "If you don't suffer you don't learn. So I use a little bit of thyme, chile, clove and cinnamon to sweeten the taste of things."
It's that same approach that Kahlo resorts to time and again in the throes of hardship: After two miscarriages, a divorce and countless operations, she continues to paint, love and find joy in life, however fleeting the pleasures may be.
Haghenbeck, whose previous novel, "Bitter Drink," won the Una Vuelta de Tuerca Award for crime fiction in Mexico and whose credits also include having written scripts for DC Comics, originally published "The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo" in Spanish under a pen name. It has now been translated into 10 languages.
The author sometimes resorts to cliches: Kahlo yearns for O'Keeffe "as if she were a juicy apple," and her relationship with Rivera is "like a drug addiction." These, however, are sparse compared with the many gratifying reflections on food, life and being.
"I think ice cream is a gift from the gods who watch over the mountaintop so that we can delight in a taste of paradise," he imagines Kahlo writing before recording a recipe for mango ice cream. "But also so we'll understand that everything can melt in our hands, and that good things are ephemeral."