I have a friend who owns an original, signed photograph by Robert Capa, it is one of his most precious pictures. It shows three women walking across an arid landscape that one presumes to be Spain(from the date and the title). The woman in the lead is the oldest, followed by a girl in her late teens or early twenties. They both have bundles on their heads, balanced with one hand with the other holding another bag. The youngest girl, not yet ten, brings up the rear also heavily laden. They are refugees. My friend and I like to think they are from Catalonia, but they could be Basque or from anywhere in Republican Spain. They have lost their war but show no signs of defeat; only a fierce pride and a determination that they will survive.
The Spanish Civil War polarised opinion abroad as few other wars had done before. Partly because of the extraordinary writers that came to watch and to beseech the world to help. We are familiar with the names of Gellhorn, Hemingway, Dos Passos and Orwell. However, photographers did as much (if not more) to publicise the war and none more so than Robert Capa and his muse and lover Gerda Tora. In her afterword, Susana Fortes writes that she believed that Spain owes both these young idealists a novel, and so she wrote one.
And it is a good one too, winning the hugely lucrative Premio Fernando Lara in 2009.
The novel tells the story of the two young Jewish refugees who wash up in Paris in the early 1930s. He, Andre Friedmann (Capa’s real name), on the run from the slums of Pest; she,Gerta Pohorylle (Gerda’s real name), equally on the run from Leipzig. Both had fallen foul of their governments because of their leftist activities. Although their Jewishness defines so much about them, neither was religious – although both felt the persecution.
The book takes the reader through the cafe/intellectual society of refugee left-wing politics and figures such as Man Ray, David Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson float through the pages, adding an atmosphere of colour, but also of dread because the reader knows what will follow. They fall hopelessly in love but find themselves unable to be together or apart. This is to do with the fierce independence that Gerta shows, long before it was fashionable. Spain defines their relationship – independent, creative and totally partial.
The last third of the book takes us to Spain as the two youngsters chronicle sieges, defeats and refugees. All brought to a shattering climax by her death, the first-ever death in battle of a female photographer. The book is written mainly from her perspective, since we know so much less about her, other than a few scraps of a diary and the testimony of friends. Afterwards, Capa was never able to talk about her, never able to reconcile to her loss.
Spain not only owed Capa a novel, but also within it had to pay homage and recognition to Gerda, and Fortes has paid Spain’s debt with this beautiful memorial.