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Love and Revolution : TINISIMA. By Elena Poniatowska, translated by Katherine Silver (Farrar Straus Giroux: $25, 357 pp.)

November 17, 1996|Denise Hamilton | Denise Hamilton is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively from Eastern Europe and on cultural issues here and abroad

Tina Modotti--photographer, revolutionary, artist's model, actor, unconventional spirit and lover of Edward Weston and Diego Rivera--defined the Bohemian zeitgeist in the first half of the 20th century.

Wherever she went, this seamstress daughter of poor Italian artisans found herself at the center of cultural and political ferment. Modotti explored art and communism in Mexico City in the 1920s. Deported for her political views, she landed in Berlin in 1930, where Hitler's shadow was already palpable. She soon moved east to Moscow, abandoning her camera for the shadowy world of a Comintern agent under Stalin. In 1935, she fought with the anti-Franco forces in Spain before returning to die in Mexico at 46, her legendary beauty gone, her photography long abandoned, her health and spirit shattered by the horror of all she had seen.

Such human drama set against the backdrop of great historical events can make for riveting fiction and that is exactly what Elena Poniatowska sets out to do in her ambitious and sweeping biographical novel "Tinisima."

Poniatowska, one of Mexico's leading literary figures, spent 10 years researching Modotti's life, using scholarly material from Mexican, U.S. and Italian archives and even traveling to Trieste to interview the photographer's last living lover and comrade, Vittorio Vidali.

Thanks to an excellent translation from the Spanish by Katherine Silver, the book, which was a bestseller in Mexico, captures the beautiful prose of Poniatowska without losing its poetry-like idiom.

In lyrical, erotically charged language, Poniatowska delivers a fast-paced, almost Impressionistic portrait of the woman once dubbed "The Mata Hari of the Comintern." But that cinematic quality is both good and bad.

It makes us privy to the broad canvass across which Modotti moved. Famous personages such as Rivera, D. H. Lawrence, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alfredo Siqueiros and Lev Kamenev, a hero of the October Revolution whom Modotti dismisses as a traitor after he is arrested by the paranoid Stalin, stud its pages. We also see Modotti's slow metamorphosis from femme fatale to a humorless Communist militant for whom art first becomes political, and then nothing at all.

But Poniatowska is so busy showing us how her heroine intersects with history that she often forgets to give us more than intriguing glimpses at Modotti herself.

We know that Modotti is beautiful. That she is desired by many men. That she is moved by the promise of communism. That her eyes express infinite sadness. But Poniatowska gets inside her head only in brief, tantalizing moments. Often, these come in letters to Weston. But overall, the third-person narration only mythologizes her subject and distances us further from the real blood-and-guts Modotti.

The closest Poniatowska gets to her character is on the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War, where, stripped to her barest essence, Modotti tends to the sick and wounded, grieves at Vidali's philandering and sacrifices body and soul for the doomed Republican cause.

In an elegiac coda of overhead conversation, Poniatowska makes us ache for all that Modotti has lost.

"She was the most attractive woman in Mexico in the '20s, the most tantalizing," recalls a Mexican writer who is shocked to see Modotti's disintegration in Barcelona.

"She still walks very gracefully and her dark suit is well cut," his companion responds.

"But she's not the same. I didn't even recognize her."

Poniatowska also shines in describing the early, idyllic years with Weston in the 1920s, capturing the indolence and sensuality of post-revolutionary Mexico, the long siestas laying half-naked in bed, eating perfumed cherimoyas while making love and revolution.

Especially compelling is Poniatowska's recounting of Modotti's relationship with the spiritual Weston, who teaches her to live for art and praises her talent instead of taking credit for her photos.

As Modotti begins developing the "small sheet of her imagination," she is drawn to the poor face of Mexico, the begging children, the weathered hands of farm laborers. She is also drawn to Xavier Guerrero, a radical with "the gravity of an Olmec head" who introduces her to the Communist Party.

Soon, the woman who lived only for beauty now lives to organize marches, attend worker rallies and write speeches. "Xavier has taught her to punish herself. The image of Tina smiling at parties was lost."

When Guerrero is summoned to Moscow, he promises to send for her, but Modotti soon meets a man whose sensuality and political commitment rival her own: the exiled Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella. Just five months into their relationship, he is gunned down by an assassin's bullet as they walk arm in arm and Modotti is arrested on trumped-up murder charges as the nation searches for a scapegoat. After a sensational trial, she is released, but she is soon deported.

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