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Love and Loss during the Spanish Civil War

Author: Donna Seaman
Newspaper: Booklist
Date: Sep 25 2019

Helen Janeczek and Isabel Allende join an illustrious group of novelists who have found a deep wellspring for fiction in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), beginning with Ernest Hemingway’s eye-witness-inspired For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was published just a year after those who were ghting to save an elected government were defeated by fascist forces under General Francisco Franco. Hemingway covered the war, as did his third-wife-to-be Martha Gellhorn, and both appear in Beautiful Exiles (2018) by Meg Waite Clayton and Love and Ruin (2018) by Paula McLain. Manuel Rivas’ e Carpenter’s Pencil (2001) is a deeply inquisitive and moving novel about the war, as are Alan Furst’s Midnight in Europe (2014), The Time in Between (2011) by Maria Duenas (translated by Daniel Hahn), and Mary Gordon’s Where Your Heart Lies (2017). Now Janeczek and Allende explore the seismic impact on individual lives of Spain’s devastating civil war in novels strikingly divergent in style and focus.

Two photojournalists are working in Barcelona in 1936. Both are Jewish exiles. Hungarian André Friedmann and Polish German Gerta Pohorylle adopt noms de guerre. He will make history as Robert Capa; Gerda Taro should be better known. At 27, she became the first woman war photographer to be killed in battle. Rather than tell Gerda’s riveting story in a straight-ahead work of biographical fiction, Janeczek has created the exceptionally intricate e Girl with the Leica, translated by Ann Goldstein and winner of the prestigious Strega Prize, in which she portrays Gerda through the eyes of three people who loved her, true-life individuals with extraordinary stories of their own. Willy Chardack, a distinguished doctor living in Bu alo, New York, in 1960, thinks about beautiful, brilliant, willful Gerda as he grapples with his isolation as an immigrant in America during the red scare. His musings set Gerda within a densely detailed rendering of 1930s Germany beset by escalating anti-Semitic terror. In Paris in 1938, a year after Gerda’s death, Ruth Cerf remembers her close friend as “independence incarnate.” And finally Georg Kuritzkes, Gerda’s rst lover, weighs in from Rome in 1960, illuminating yet more facets of Gerda’s brio and daring exploits. Janeczek’s demanding, allusion-saturated, multiperspective novel portrays a circle of valiant dissidents and ventures into many spheres, but the focus always swings back to resplendently determined, courageous, and creative Gerda. (. . .)