Waiting for Robert Capa by Susana Fortes

February 27, 2012 - 11:09 am No Comments

Waiting for Robert Capa

by Susana Fortes, translated by Adriana V. Lopez.

“Robert Capa” is the name and persona invented by Gerda Taro to successfully market photographs taken by herself and Endre Friedmann in Paris in 1935.

Gerda was born Gerta Pohorylle in Stuttgart, a Jewish citizen who fled the Nazis to Paris where she met Hungarian Endre Friedmann, also Jewish. He was taking photographs and developing them in the bathroom of his tiny flat with red cellophane wrapped around the light, as he had been shown by another emerging artist, Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Gerta changed her name to “Gerda” because it sounded less Jewish, Endre became Robert Capa, Gerda’s creation of the successful American photographer who was rich, talented, and a womaniser. Gerda established herself as Capa’s agent, managing to get commissions for newspaper stories and  advertisements.

Robert Capa was sent to Spain to cover the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. While he was away, Gerda developed her own distinct style of photography, but sold her pictures as Capa’s work without ever getting acknowledgement for them.

Prior to conjuring Robert Capa from thin air, Gerta had been sharing an attic in the Latin Quarter with her friend, Ruth Cerf. Multilingual Gerta had easily been able to pick up poorly-paid work typing up scientific journals, but felt the need to do something more satisfying. Returning to her flat one evening, she found that the door had been forced, and stepping inside, that their living space and possessions had been trashed. Captain Flint, their pet parrot, was floating in a pot of boiling water, his neck broken. Racist slogans had been painted on the walls.

Shocked and frightened, Gerta briefly gave way to tears, but then, realising that she was reacting as her tormentors wanted her to respond, she took the Leica camera that she had slung over her shoulder on her way home from work, and started photographing. She had found her profession: she would become an important witness to the cowardice and brutality of such thuggish behaviour.

Waiting for Robert Capa is an imaginative reconstruction of the lives and work of Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, written by a Spanish author who has won several literary awards for her work, including the Premio Fernando Lara prize in 2009 for this one. Fortes dedicates much of the narrative to the love that grows between the two chief protagonists—at the expense of the daily events of those turbulent times that are probably far more interesting. Sometimes this becomes mawkish, though it may be that clumsy translation is to blame:

It showed in the way they made love, holding on to each other tightly, because one day in the near future one of them or both of them could die, and then there would be nothing, not a damn straw to clutch at. The amazing foreshortening of her lying across the bed with his pyjamas on, tender and half-asleep.

It is also sometimes difficult to locate the events occurring in this novel in time, as internal journeys in the characters’ minds take precedence over their physical movements. This, with the too frequent absence of verbs in sentences, becomes rather irritating. Even more irritating is the intrusive sentimental commentary from the author. An example is a description of Ruth Cerf:

Attentive eyes, an understanding forehead, with that protective instinct that women used to have when they buttoned up a coat properly and wrapped their children’s scarves around them on chilly mornings.

Or Robert’s effect on Gerda, who is described as  “A tad naive, gullible like all women. . .”, a statement which does not bear examination when seen in the context of Taro’s short but heroic life.

Also somewhat unsettling are the leaps forward in time out of the narrative to inform the reader of the deaths of the main characters. We learn quite early in the story of both Robert’s and Gerda’s premature deaths, and we also learn of the demise of their friend Chim.

There are images that simply float through our memories, waiting for time to put them in their proper place. And although nobody can know beforehand, there’s always a vague premonition, an omen, something we’re not certain of, but that’s there. Many years later, that would be the last image that David Seymour, Chim to his friends, would remember before he was struck down by an Egyptian sniper. It was November 10, 1956, at a border crossing, where he’d arrived with another photographer from France on an assignment to cover a prisoner exchange in the Suez Canal while peace negotiations were already underway.

This is a leap of some twenty years from Gerda’s and Capa’s story, when, both in Spain pursuing their careers in photo-journalism, they join the  Twelfth International Brigade, made up of German and Polish Communists, and meet Chim in the ranks. The above excerpt goes on to describe their Polish friend’s violent death, and then claims that as he is breathing his last, he remembers this meeting he had with them, “Capa, Gerda, and he, three young people walking along a trail. Smiling”.

Though this story is a fictional account of Gerda’s and Capa’s time in Spain, it is rather difficult to suspend disbelief to the extent that we can accept what this dying man sees in his mind as he is shuffling off his mortal coil. This is because the character is never “fleshed out” sufficiently in the narrative. He remains a stranger to us, so we are suspicious of the claims about his last thoughts that appear as merely an author’s contrivance. It is again sentimental, devaluing the fact of Chim’s actual death.

However the description of the demise of Chim does highlight the risks involved in wartime photo-journalism, a point that Fortes, in her  “Author’s Note”, claims she wanted to make.

George Orwell arrived in Spain a year after Gerda and Capa, to chronicle the events he witnessed. His Homage to Catalonia (1938), offers a far more lucid account of the Spanish War combined with a potent sense of the tragedy of the betrayal of those atruistic men and women who were in Spain to fight the Fascists, than Waiting for Robert Capa achieves. In the hands of Fortes, Robert Capa’s war was certainly more glamorous than Orwell’s, for she reminds her readers of the many luminaries gathered at the Anti-Fascists Intellectual Congress—more than two hundred writers and artists from twenty-eight countries. While mentioning Andre Malraux, Tristan Tzara, Stephen Spender, Walter Reuter, Paul Robeson, and Ernest Hemingway—among others—they are merely mentioned.  This, too, is a minor frustration, for, with such fascinating people gathered in one country, the reader may have expectations of some tantalising interaction between them and the two main characters, but this never happens.

Overall, Waiting for Robert Capa is disappointing. The real events that are the background to the love affair, seem sketchily drawn when compared with works about the Spanish War by other authors. A stronger portrayal of this time would have made the love affair seem more poignant.

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