MAY 15, 2021
THE TEMPESTUOUS HOUSEHOLD that Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera established at the Casa Azul in Mexico City has contributed to a literary industry. A new book, The Hammer, the Sickle and the Heart: Trotsky and Kahlo in Mexico, shifts the focus from Kahlo’s partnership with Diego Rivera to Kahlo’s relationship with Leon Trotsky, the former leader of the Red Army, exiled from the Soviet Union after falling out of favor with Joseph Stalin. Compellingly depicting an international revolutionary movement riven by seductions and jealousies, C. P. Rosenthal’s lyrical and informative novel follows Trotsky as he takes up residence in a Mexico whose beauty verges on the sinister. Sexual tensions in the Kahlo household are exacerbated by the political abstractions of the pro- and anti-Stalin alliances, the warring emotions experienced most keenly by Trotsky’s wife, Natalia Sedova. An ardent partner since her 20s in the dangerous work of creating a workers’ revolution, and a strong female character in an incendiary time and place, she now feels displaced from her country and her marriage, suffering the very personal problems of a woman aging.
The ancient and bloody Mexican landscape viscerally amplifies the political and domestic upheaval (though the tequila-imbibing monkey and cursing parrots of the Casa Azul offer surreal relief). In Mexico, says Kahlo, “we are yet wild.” Driving with Trotsky and Sedova after their arrival in the country, she removes from her bag an obsidian blade, a weapon long associated with human sacrifice, thumbing its edge. The dagger came from Teotihuacán, she says, the city older than the Aztecs, bigger than Rome or London or Petrograd. Petrograd is now Leningrad, Sedova corrects her. Trotsky asks whether Teotihuacán matters now. Kahlo’s reply is instant: yes, it matters, and they will show the Russians that it does. In this deft exchange, Kahlo reminds us that Mexico was once an empire, and implies that Trotsky’s world-shaking revolution is only a brief moment in the rise and fall of civilizations.
Mexico in this novel is a land one takes in via “peripheral vision”: because of “the unconscious pouring itself out around every corner,” everything that “stood in front of you, or lay in front of you or burned or bled in front of you, exploded to those edges, so psychologically, emotionally, you lived on the edge of panic.” This territory of the unconscious is what Trotsky encounters in the Casa Azul, an experience that does not deeply change him but to which he gradually becomes receptive. The great work to which he has devoted his life, the liberation of the working poor, is challenged by a pair of artists whose work is guided by the primacy of imagination and personal expression.
In many ways, Kahlo is an unrelatable figure to both the Trotskys. Knowing of her injuries and many surgeries, they still cannot understand her preoccupation with depicting the surreal drama of her inner life. The muralist Rivera, on the other hand, addresses the cause, his paintings reflecting social movement and political prophecy. Rivera, who was expelled from the Stalinist-leaning Communist Party in Mexico for giving sanctuary to the exiled Trotsky, tells him that, despite the seeming message of his murals, he does not believe that politics takes precedence over art. Ultimately, Trotsky will acknowledge that, in the act of making art, the individual protests against reality. He comes to see that free expression is itself revolutionary and that artists’ visions, such as those of Rivera and even Kahlo, are driven by the forces of history.
But the atmosphere of Casa Azul is too much for him. The sexual tensions and swirling rivalries include Kahlo’s sister Christina and a KGB lieutenant who is there to report on them all. Seeking relief from his feelings for Kahlo and the constant sense of being the target of assassins, Trotsky retreats to a village outside the city where he believes he can ride and hunt freely:
He found a pond, followed its edge and found duck scat. Found shade and waited in there until the ducks flew in. He sat, slowly, counting his breaths, the moments between their life and death. He waited for them to take flight. This was the dreadful peace of hunting, or waiting for your prey, watching them on the edge of their mortality and thus on the edge of yours.
Thus, elegantly, Rosenthal signals Trotsky’s own imminent death.
Centered on artists of strong political conviction who nevertheless place first their right to free expression, The Hammer, the Sickle and the Heart potentially addresses the question of the artist’s responsibility during times of social upheaval. If the affair between Trotsky and Kahlo starkly represents those opposing tensions, it is empathy for the plight of Trotsky’s wife Sedova that draws the reader viscerally into the novel’s world. How can she compete with the woman André Breton (the French surrealist artist who is also a part of the Casa Azul menagerie) called “uncontainably wild,” a woman who audaciously depicted herself with “her chest torn open and her spine exposed from the pelvis to the base of her chin”?
Disconcerted by Kahlo’s unconventional appeal, Sedova observes:
[T]his thin beauty who limped slightly, almost coyly, beneath her colorful native dress and scarves, a single eyebrow crossing her forehead, a wisp of dark fuzz over her lip. The brow was thick and full, but it didn’t completely cross over her nose. It was enhanced with black mascara.
In the car with Trotsky and Kahlo, Sedova sees the casual meeting of eyes, the accidental brushing of legs. “The young don’t believe they will age,” she later thinks. “And when they look at the old, they somehow believe they were born old, never strident, never beautiful.” Bitterly she will cry out to Trotsky about the loss of her physical desirability: “Women age in ways men don’t.” Trotsky evasively reassures her, saying that she has the most fascinating intellect of any woman he has ever known. Her wounded comeback is swift and on point: “But it isn’t needed to make love.”
Given Mexico’s sanguinary history, the assassination of Trotsky is but a footnote. Yet this fine novelist’s “peripheral vision” has captured what endures beyond the bare facts. The Portuguese novelist José Saramago has defended the construction of fictions centered on historical characters, asserting that facts in themselves are nothing and history only what society agrees happened. It is the novelist’s job to explore this “wretched reality” for deeper and truer explanations. Rosenthal depicts the culture and landscape of Mexico, as well as the destabilizing atmosphere of Kahlo’s Casa Azul, with lyricism and dramatic flair. He excels at creating those intriguing and resonant delays that keep you reading, even when you know the end of the story.