Thursday, April 26, 2007

A review of "Tinisima"

by Elena , Poniatowska

Tina Modotti is a fascinating 20th century character whose life was stranger than fiction. Elena Poniatowska, journalist and author, allegedly spent 10 years researching Modotti, and this novel is the fruit of that labor. It’s difficult to understand why she chose to write a novel instead of a biography. Her training as a journalist is evident throughout this book, much to its detriment. Modotti’s life is intricately plotted: first she did this, then she did that. We get a well-researched timeline of events that would be laudable in biographical form, but we never quite come to understand Modotti.

Why would such a vibrantly voluptuous spirit, the center of bohemian Mexico in the 1920s, who tried so hard to create beautiful forms in both art and life consciously subsume and excise all remnants of her unique personality from her life to become a drab gray Comintern agent, abandoning her appearance and her art? Why would she go from a sybaritic plethora of male admirers to obsessing over a pro-Stalinist assassin that just couldn’t be bothered to pay her attention? How was her automatic love of mankind and the idealism it engendered tricked and blinded by the evils committed in the name of Communism? If there were no answers to these questions to be found in all Poniatowska’s biographical research, than certainly a novel might be the ground for examining these questions. It would allow the author to venture with imagination to answer what is left unknown. But Poniatowska creates a Modotti so opaque that psychological understanding becomes impossible.

Modotti crosses paths with hundreds of people in this book. The work is peppered with names of people that are just randomly inserted, possibly to give events context but without context of their own, making it impossible to tell to the reader if a) the person is fictional or b) the person really existed. I get the feeling that most of the people named were real, however Poniatowska gives next to no information about them, so their addition becomes blather. Additionally, as there is no internal examination of Modotti herself, there is no examination of her interaction with these people that would help us understand anything about them. Weston did this, Mella did that, Rivera said this, Vidali went here…we don’t know why, they just did, and we stop caring. I couldn’t be bothered to finish the book with 50 pages to go.

I’m sure Modotti’s life would make a fascinating biography. That’s what I should have read instead of this.

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