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The Girl With the Leica by Helena Janeczek review – a revolutionary life in pictures

Author: Jamie Mackay
Newspaper: The Guardian
Date: Nov 23 2019

A woman basks in the summer light, her head cocked lazily against a chair. Next to her sits a man, a rifle in his hand, his teeth bared in an affectionate grin. This is Barcelona in 1936, and the pair are republican fighters in the Spanish civil war. The picture was taken by the legendary photographer Robert Capa, a pseudonym invented by the Hungarian Endré Friedmann and German-born Gerta Pohorylle for their war reportage. Like the couple in the photo, the two parts of that journalistic alias were lovers who shared a profound antifascist commitment. And yet, Pohorylle, who renamed herself Gerda Taro, has often been seen as an apprentice, a background figure and muse to her male counterpart. Helena Janeczek’s latest novel, The Girl With the Leica, which won Italy’s Premio Strega in 2018, sets out to address this imbalance. Starting from this image, she goes on to valorise Pohorylle’s achievements, both as Capa and under her own pseudonym, linking her struggles and sacrifices to those of other women who have been unjustly forgotten by history.

In a book so concerned with female agency, it’s perhaps surprising that the lead character is denied the opportunity to narrate her own story. Instead, Janeczek pieces together a picture of her subject, who died in Spain in 1937, through imagined testimonies of real-life friends and lovers. Georg Kuritzkes, a communist fighter, marvels at her “shameless pragmatism” and “brilliance at hiding uncertainties”. Ruth Cerf, a friend and roommate, presents her as an “incarnation of elegance, femininity, coquetterie” while hypothesising that “she reasons, feels, and acts like a man”. The love-smitten Willy Chardack complains that Taro was “never a girl to long through a window”, and “much too serious”. Together these fragments serve less as a eulogy than a shattered portrait, one which muddles as much as it illuminates the central figure.

Janeczek avoids long “photographic” descriptions of light and shadow and crumbling buildings, instead prioritising voice, dialogue and interior monologue, the very things images are often hard-pressed to communicate. Place itself is hollowed out, an assemblage of background impressions at best. One moment the action is in Barcelona, next in Paris, then Rome, then Belgrade. This is a world of stateless individuals. Historical periods are likewise cut and pasted, with the siege of Madrid, the Italian resistance and the German anti-Nazi movement overlapping in a kind of collage. Ann Goldstein has worked admirably to render all this in English, but the strain of perpetual movement lends the text a rougher edge than some of her other translations.

While the novel can be disorienting, Janeczek’s style arguably makes sense as a reflection of her protagonist’s chaotic, peripatetic nature. Taro, we’re told, was a woman obsessed by “transitions, phases, chapters” and “the urgency of turning the page”. If the attempt to represent these tendencies frequently comes at the expense of narrative flow, the novel as a whole is a daring attempt to capture the life of a revolutionary woman whose commitment to freedom held firm against the dogmas of her time.