Palaces of memory, rooms full of light

Issue 13 (July 2002) saw Kevin Higgins review a novel telling of Trotsky’s last years.

Meaghan Delahunt, In The Blue House (Bloomsbury)

Meaghan Delahunt’s debut novel—a fictionalised version of Leon Trotsky’s last years in Mexico and, in particular, his relationship with the artist Frida Kahlo—bucks a number of the trends which have lately come to dominate the rather precious world of contemporary English language fiction. Given the typically oh so self-obsessed novels about getting divorced in Hampstead (à la Martin Amis) or going to find yourself in Spain (à la Colm Tóibín) which currently dominate the bookshelves in Eason’s and Waterstones, it was refreshing indeed to find a novel in which history, far from being over, is writ large; and to encounter characters who, for better or for worse, actually mattered in the grand scheme of things. However, perhaps the way this novel differs from most of its contemporaries is best illustrated by the fact that I actually managed to read it from beginning to end—all 304 pages—without once being tempted to see what was on the television. Episode after episode of Home and Away and The Bold and the Beautiful drifted into oblivion as it grabbed and held my attention.

Delahunt successfully weaves the messy details of Trotsky’s personal life (such as the affair with Kahlo and its aftermath) and the tumultuous events of his political life into an impressively seamless whole. To do this she uses an occasionally bewildering variety of narrators, everyone from Trotsky and Kahlo themselves to Stalin, Beria, the poet Mayakovsky and Ramon Mercader, the man who eventually wielded that ice-pick. She also skips around considerably in time. For example, the story ‘starts’ shortly after Frida Kahlo’s death in July 1954 with Señora Rosita Moreno reminiscing about Kahlo’s life in the Blue House of the title. On page 175, though, we’re suddenly back in 1898 and the young Trotsky is pacing around his first ever prison cell in Odessa. Changing narrator with each chapter, Delahunt’s version of the story moves relentlessly back and forth through time before ending back where it began with Frida Kahlo’s death in 1954. A structure which in the hands of a less accomplished writer could have made the novel confusing and episodic actually works very well.

The chapters are short and punchy, and almost entirely devoid of self-indulgent first novel rambling. The book apparently evolved from a short story of Delahunt’s, ‘In the Blue House at Coyoacan’, which was published in the Australian literary magazine Heat back in 1998. And one gets the impression that it has been through several drafts. Facing into a story like this must have been an absolutely daunting task for a first-time novelist such as Delahunt. To begin with, the fact that it is based on the lives of prominent historical figures, who were alive as recently as the middle of the last century, means that you need more than dramatic tension to keep the reader interested. Hardly anyone will read on simply to find out ‘what happened in the end’, because the vast majority of Delahunt’s potential readers will already have known at least the basics of the ‘Trotsky story’ long before they picked up her book. Of course, one definite advantage In The Blue House has from the outset is that, quite unlike the typical Hampstead divorcee, its characters are all such interesting people.

It is, above all else, a book about Trotsky’s personal reaction to the dev­astating political defeats he suffered during the last decade and a half of his life. As Delahunt tells it, his affair with Frida Kahlo was something of an attempt to recapture his former glory at a time when, deep down, he knew perfectly well that his days were numbered:

He had seen himself new, had felt as if all the accumulations of his past had been rolled back in the body of a person much younger than himself who knew only the grandeur of him and none of its fading.
For Natalia [his wife] knew the lustre. She knew, also, the efforts to maintain it, to polish. The effort, sometimes, to keep going.
The younger woman saw none of this, and this cheered him. Made him forget how much effort it took to rise again in the morning, preparing for battle, wondering if that day would be his last and, if that were the case, how best to live it.

How different this Trotsky is from the caricature ‘Strelnikov’ in Doctor Zhivago with his deadpan declaration about the personal life now being “dead in Russia”. Much has been made of the way Trotsky supposedly shrugged off even the most devastating political setbacks. And no doubt he had an amazing capacity for picking himself up and starting from scratch again. However, I have to say that I think Delahunt does us a service by making her Trotsky rather more completely human than the one we are used to. Shortly before his death in August 1940 she has him suffering from insomnia and wondering if he had “like Marx, neglected those closest to him? Made intolerable demands upon them?… Maybe he had no talent for love or intimacy.” Some will undoubtedly read these thoughts as belonging more to Delahunt than to Trotsky, and as such will see them as the self-justification of someone who simply hadn’t the stomach for the long, hard haul of revolutionary politics. However, this would, I think, be a crude reading to say the least. After all, who among those of us who’ve had any sort of serious involvement in revolutionary politics has not, on occasion, paused to consider the toll that involvement has taken on their personal life?

My favourite passage, though, is on page 253 in a chapter narrated by Trotsky’s wife Natalia:

Of course, later, when personal tragedy consumed us, when we lost everyone [including all of their children]… He would stand at the window and look up at the moon. He would pack the dead away inside himself. So many spaces for the dead inside. We spoke often of our palaces of memory. In these rooms our children still played. Friends still embraced; we clinked glasses in rooms full of light. But some rooms, after we had endured too much, could never be opened.

Though this is clearly a description of a deeply personal tragedy, it could also be read as a sustained metaphor for the complete crushing of revolu­tionary optimism in any time or place. And, while it would certainly be ludicrous to make any direct comparison between the relatively small sacri­fices activists today sometimes make and the gothic tragedy which engulfed Trotsky, there are, I think, many of us who know something about what it’s like to have long-lost comrades with whom we still occasionally clink glasses in imaginary “rooms full of light”. As a former Trotskyist activist herself, Delahunt clearly knows what she’s talking about here. However, far from being some dry political tract, In The Blue House is, on the contrary, a very accomplished work of art indeed. By avoiding hero worship and, instead, painting this picture of a decidedly fallible Trotsky grappling with the con­sequences of a catastrophic political defeat, Delahunt succeeds in making him someone the contemporary reader can really believe in.