Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Review: "Waiting for Robert Capa" by Susana Fortes

Waiting For Robert Capa (2011) 

Susana Fortes (1959-)

201 pages

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (a non-fiction book from 2002 by the journalist Chris Hedges) could have served as an appropriate title for this wonderful novel from Susan Fortes about Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, two photographers who travel to Spain in 1936 to cover the Spanish Civil War, and in so doing discover a passion for photojournalism that galvanizes their lives. Although Fortes presents her book as a work of fiction, real people and true events provide its framework, and finally the book feels at once like a biography, an historical novel and a celebration of its two main characters and the lives they made for themselves.

The story opens as two refugees, a German Jew with a Polish passport, Gerta Pohorylle, and a Hungarian Jew, AndrĂ© Friedman, meet in Paris in 1935. They are a part of a large and growing group of refugees who are settling in Paris as Fascism and anti-Semitism cast long shadows over much of Europe in the mid-1930’s. Within a year of meeting the two are traveling together to Spain as photographers to report back on the Spanish Civil War, which represents for them the latest and bloodiest front in the fight against fascism. In an attempt to become more commercially acceptable, the pair have adopted pseudonyms that effectively hide their nationalities and so free them from the prejudice they have experienced as refugees; their new identities are so effective that the world at large comes to know them only by their new names, few even realizing that they are pseudonyms: Gerta becoming Gerda Taro, and AndrĂ© the famous Robert Capa. (Capa is best known for having taken the iconic, though now controversial, photo of the Spanish Civil War, of a republican soldier at the moment he is hit and killed by a nationalist rebel’s bullet; the photo and an essay on the debate by Robert Whelan at the PBS website. More information on the Spanish Civil War can be found at the review of a history of the conflict by Hugh Thomas.)

Many of the photographs Capa, Taro, and fellow photojournalist and friend David Seymour, better known as Chim, took during the Spanish Civil War were actually long thought to be lost, and were only recently recovered in Mexico, in what has come to be known collectively as The Mexican Suitcase. (The name relates to the history of the travels of the set of negatives over the 60 years they were thought lost; more information can be found at The Mexican Suitcase.) In her Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Fortes states that it was seeing a photograph found in this collection that Capa took of a sleeping Gerda Taro that sparked her interest in Taro’s life, and eventually led her to write this book.

The novel takes real events --- that the two met in Paris, fell in love, and traveled to Spain as photojournalists --- and weaves a story out of these simple facts, filling in imagined thoughts, feelings and intimate events. The pair took hundreds of photographs during their time together (though few of each other), and for parts of the novel Fortes seems to construct scenes around a particular photograph one of them took, conceiving a sequence of events that could have led up to the moment the photograph was taken, or that may have played out after the image was captured.

Perhaps because of the important role that photography in general and specific photographs in particular played in Fortes’ creation of this novel, the story develops as a series of vignettes: short, colorful snapshots of Taro and Capa’s lives, like free form poems. The result felt to me a bit like observing a series of related photographs or paintings of a historical event, and imaging a back-story for each one in a way that results in a coherent story for the whole.

Fortes’ beautiful writing wonderfully captures the sudden and explosive transition in Taro and Capa’s lives, from struggling refugees who took pictures they could sell to magazines to earn money for their daily food and rent in a foreign city, to bold photojournalists who took pictures they could sell to magazines to report out the struggle of a people fighting to survive a fascist rebellion in a foreign country.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:

The novel is reportedly being made into a movie by director Michael Mann.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION