on November 6, 2004
While the pervious reviewers summed up quite well the novel's basic plotline (Leon Trotsky's mexican exile) and structure (multiple narratives), what seems to have been left behind is the emotional response this novel succeeds in evoking in its reader.
I am by profession an academic historian, but when I come to read a historical novel I do not come in search for the facts and figures. Rather, I am hoping that the novelist may offer me an alternative (yes, fictional) path to revisioning the past and provoke me to rethink long held truths. Meaghan Delahunt has juxtaposed texts, voices, artwork, flashbacks and flash-forwards to recreate an era that for most of us is even more foreign than a foreign country: the first half of the 20th century, an era of true-believers, when people chose to live and die for their beliefs.
By piecing together the varied texts, Delahunt utilizes a common post-modern literary device designed to evoke nonlinear insights. So this is not your traditional historical novel, with a linear plot progression and well-rounded characters; if you are looking for such a novel at this moment, you may well be disappointed. But if you are willing to go along with the author and face the challege of its narrave structure, you will find you have been rewarded with a unique and mesmerizing historical novel, which succeeds in conveying the texture and timbre of another place and time far better than many "facutal" historical texts
on June 11, 2002
I discovered In the Casa Azul quite by chance and since the subject of this historical novel interests me a great deal, bought a copy. It is more a collection of vignettes than a novel, concerning somewhat the life and death of Leon Trotsky, a story told in revolving point of view by those who knew him or coexisted with him in history: enemy Stalin, his father, the poet Mayakovsky, wife Natalia, lover Frida Kahlo, bodyguard, even his assassin. The book appears researched enough for its own purposes and tends to stay within historical accounts, its author filling in the missing dramatic elements, speculating for example on the affair between Trotsky and Frida through brief character narratives. Some of the narratives, particularly those of Trotsky and his bodyguard, Jordi Marr, are interesting and engaging, especially by the book's end as we bear down on the inevitable fate of one of twentieth century history's most misunderstood and underappreciated figures. More frequent deft blurring of the facts would have been nice, though. One problem with the execution; the many voices in the book all sound like the same one voice. The writing is confessional, poetic perhaps to a fault with its endless, often heavy-handed symbolism presaging what we already know will happen, repetitive, italicized rusticisms, fragmented sentences, present tense narratives, and a cinematic attention to image reminiscent of the movie cutaway. The book makes ample use of facts but these appear all too evocative, piled on at times.
Another problem with In the Casa Azul is it lacks something in the development of the story and the characters to make the book work on the level of the novel: discovery. It also lacks ideas. If the novel is not to become another instance of soap opera or extra-journalistic reportage, which we have up to our nostrils already, it must do more than scatter juicy tidbits over its 300 pages. It is as if the best way to make one's historical cast of characters appear human and real is by showing up their weaknesses.
The book is perhaps too ambitious in its scope; when I'd rather have read about Trotsky and his assassin (aka Jacques Mornard) I instead got chapter after chapter on Stalin, snatches of his childhood and a drawn out personal account of his wife's suicide. Stalin may be more "important," but that doesn't mean beans for the novel. Besides he's been done to death already. And it's not so interesting "who" ordered Trotsky killed as it is "what" and "who" pulled it off. Just when the author begins to go in this direction we're suddenly yanked away to history's sideline some ten or even fifty years before. The characters become morose, reflective victims of history by the book's end, even poor Mornard, who in actuality had achieved instant celebrity status (especially with the FBI), leaving behind a dead Trotsky who was suddenly as contemporary as a pharoah.
Mildly entertaining, in a few moments insightful and even lovely, but as a treatment of the fascinating aged Russian intellectual, not just the politico, but the man of letters, superficial. A better example of the historical novel as a treatment of a man of ideas is Jay Parini's "Benjamin's Crossing."
As time is precious, this book was a bit of a dissapointment but is saved by the sometimes brilliant passages. The problem is that there were not enough of them. The book is interesting as a historical novel but is more of a fictionalized novel set to a historical background. Take a couple of charismatic characters, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky , and you have enough material to let your imagination go wild amidst the true to life affair that existed between them. The book is told in a jumping around style, flashbacks and stories told drawing on "diaries" amd memories of different characters who in this novel rubbed elbows with El Viejo(The Old Man) and somewhat less with Frida. This book deals primarily with Trotsky and his own personal hell, as he is in hiding in Mexico in a paranoid world where potentially everyone is out to kill him and one man eventually does with an ice pick(yes, we get to go into the muderers mind) in his brain. Another reason I was dissapointed was because I thought the book might be more about Frida but it is clearly Trotsky's stage and Frida is just a player in this passion play. An interesting side note is all this passion for a world vision that is all but extinct now with only a few hanger on nations devoted to Communism makes this book seem like some type of glimpse into the early twentieth century but it may as well have been five thousand years ago. If you are looking for what went on in the Casa Azul in Coyoacan look elsewhere because this novel is heavy on the Trotsky memories of his days before he even got to Mexico. So is it worth your time? Your time might be better spent elsewhere but if you like hearing about kulaks, comrades, Bolsheviks, Moscow, the Kremlin, the Ukraine, Stalin and of course, Trotsky, than you might enjoy this book. Myself I was looking for more Diego and Frida and came up with just a few nibbles. There are plenty of broad strokes of Russian history, vignettes into revolution and assassinations but not enough of The Casa Azul.