Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, trans from the Spanish by Adriana V Lopez
This novel is a fictionalised account of the true story of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, two of the foremost photojournalists who reported on the Spanish Civil War.
The story begins in Paris though, when young Jewish German refugee Gerta meets handsome Hungarian photographer André. There is an instant strong bond between them, he starts to teach Gerta photography, and she becomes his assistant and manager, but it will take some time for them to become lovers. Gerta takes everything very seriously…
The way you look at things is also how you think about and confront life. More than anything, she wanted to learn and to change. It was the perfect opportunity to do so, the moment when everything was about to happen, in which life’s course could still alter itself. Many months later, just before daybreak in another country, beneath the rattling of machine guns in minus-five-degree weather, she would remember that initial moment when happiness was going out to hunt and not killing the bird.
Their circle in Paris was full of big names including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Man Ray and Matisse. It was difficult to get work amongst all this competition. One day Gerda had an inspiration – she invented a new persona for André and the elusive American photographer Robert Capa was born. Gerta also changed her name, to make it sound less Jewish and she became Gerda Taro.
Capa began to get photo-journalism assignments, and when the Spanish Civil War came, they both went out to Barcelona in 1936 and got stuck in. Gerda was just 26. Capa gained international fame for his photo The Falling Soldier, capturing that moment as a man gets hit in the head. They lived for adventure and were sometimes reckless in getting the shot, Gerda’s photos also being credited to the bogus Robert Capa.
Their relationship was no less intense. Once they fell in love, it was total and they didn’t need anyone else. Gerda refused Robert’s proposal though, needing space and to find her own way. She discussed this with her friend Ruth, back in Paris …
“The reality is I’ve never been able to choose. I didn’t choose what happened in Leipzig, I didn’t choose to come to Paris, I didn’t choose to abandon my family, my brothers, I didn’t choose to fall in love. Nor did I choose to become a photographer. I chose nothing. Whatever came my way, I dealt with it as I could.” She got up and began playing with an amber bead, tossing it between her hands. “My script was always written by others.”
Gerda struck out on her own, but she still loved Robert, and in the style of true star-crossed lovers their relationship ends tragically.
This is very much a novel of two contrasting halves, or rather locations. Gerta & André /Gerda & Robert in Paris as part of the intellectual left-leaning café society, and then Gerda & Robert in Spain at the sharp end. I loved both – the burgeoning love story and the obsession with work in a field that once experienced, would never make normal life seem the same again.
Gerta and André are an irrestistible couple. She, the blonde, cool and detached German, he, the passionate and dark Gypsy. I’d heard of the name Robert Capa, possibly in connection with the Magnum Agency, which he co-founded with Cartier-Bresson and others, but knew nothing about the man – the couple, and shockingly little about the Spanish Civil War other than that Hemingway and George Orwell had gone out there.
Fortes writes beguilingly about the Paris salons and the growing romance, and yes, I was relieved when they finally got it together. Their love scenes, although passionate are handled with some delicacy. This contrasts with the harder edge given to the war scenes in which the author manages to portray the horrors and the confusion clearly.
The Author’s Note at the end makes clear where fiction begins and ends – all the war scenes are documented. The inspiration was a photo published in 2008, after three boxes of unedited photos were discovered. The photo is of Gerda in bed wearing Capa’s pyjamas and captured Fortes’s imagination, and she resolved to tell their story.
Recently, I read another wartime historical ‘novel’ – HHhH by Laurent Binet, which was a totally frustrating read. Waiting for Robert Capa is a conventional narrative, but has an immediacy and a freshness that the other lacked for me. Although I did need to read a little background on the Spanish Civil War to make sense of the factions involved, you cannot read this story without being inspired to look at some of Capa’s wonderful photos. Guess which I preferred?! (9/10)
Spanish Lit Month is being hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad
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My copy was sent by the publisher, thank you.
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Waiting for Robert Capa by Susanna Fortes, Harper pbk, 201 pages.