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Phuket Books: A short but happy life

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PHUKET: The Spanish novelist Susana Fortes has won many literary awards and her latest novel entitled Waiting for Robert Capa (HarperCollins, New York, 2011, 201pp) is set to be made into a film by director Michael Mann.

On the book cover is a photograph of a slender blond woman in beret and military fatigues crouched asleep upon a road marker labeled “PC” – an inside joke for “Partido Communista”, the communist party of the Spanish Civil War. The woman, the central character of the novel, is war photographer Gerda Taro who would be killed outside Madrid a few days before her 27th birthday.

Gerda Taro was famous in her day. With her lover Robert Capa she took many iconic photos of the Spanish Civil War. They had met in Paris, both Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazism, she from Germany, he from Hungary. They would embark upon the world stage with false professional names, his based on the American movie director Frank Capra, hers on Greta Garbo and Japanese artist Taro.

Susana Fortes hews closely to the facts about the two young lovers. She is very good in tracing their first meeting and growing attraction for each other. Their lives in Spain are full of bravery, dash and romance.

“They were nothing more than photographers, people dedicated to looking. Witnesses. And unaware that they were living between two world wars. A good majority were already used to clandestinely crossing borders. They were no longer German, or Hungarian, or Polish, or Czechoslovakian, or Austrian. They were refugees. They belonged to no one. Not to any nation. Nomads, stateless people who gathered almost every week somewhere to read aloud passages from novels, recite poetry, act out plays . . . A certain romanticism united them. Give me a photograph and I’ll build you the world.”

Given such characters and such drama, this novel should be a small masterpiece. But the English prose is just awful. This may well be the fault of the translator Adriana V. Lopez.

The great Latin American writers Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had the services of the master translator Gregory Rabassa. Susanna Fortes has no such luck. Nearly every page sports a clumsy howler of a sentence.

Here is Gerda’s wildly overwrought reaction to Capa’s jealousy:

“Perhaps it wasn’t entirely jealousy, but complete animal possessiveness. A need to erase the past, an absurd macho pride, a thousand-year-old instinct dating back to when men in hordes howled at the moon at midnight alongside their tribe’s campfire. Selecting their female, separating her from the rest to make her exclusively his. So he would bring her to one of those huge prairies of grain and nail a child into her entrails.” Nail? Entrails?

The author also has a nasty habit of pulling away from her Spanish Civil War narrative to pontificate about the future. Thus we have Capa giving a speech in New York about war photography 10 years later “when Gerda was already within the black outer limits of ether. And she listened to him millions of light years away, out on the balcony of her star.”

Grand passages like this tend to push away the intimacy of two lovers in their final days when she refused his offer of marriage. More clumsiness: “It was impossible to get her out of his head; he was thinking obsessively about every centimeter of her skin, her voice. . . the way she crawled into his tent and pressed up against his body, pouting softly like a saint or an Andalusian virgin.”

The bad writing continues to grate even in great climax of Gerda’s final battle which she covers with another colleague, the Canadian Ted Allen “who would have given her the moon on a silver platter if she had asked him to.”

How much such screaming clichés are the fault of the author or the translator, it is hard to say. But definitely an editor should have been summoned to weed them out. They finally prove a crippling distraction to what should have been a great story.

The book is available online or by ordering through all good bookshops in Phuket.

— James Eckhardt

 

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