The Girl with a Leica. Helena Janeczec


Premio Strega 2018. The Girl wit a Leica. Helena Janeczec. 2017

The Girl with the Leica is one of the twelve books shortlisted for the Premio Strega 2018 and of the five shortlisted for the Premio Campiello 2018, the two most prestigious Italian literary awards.

The multifaceted time of the narration is contained between the splendid prologue and epilogue that comment a few pictures of Gerda Taro or taken by her – she used to take pictures of  anyone she perceived to be fighting for a just cause.


This outstanding photograph of two republican soldiers taken by Gerda in Barcelona in the summer of 1936 during the Spanish Civil War and chosen by Janeczek as opening to the prologue summarizes tenderly a few of the themes the novel will develop.

“Since you have seen that picture, you keep looking at them daydreaming. They seem happy, and they are young, as heroes are expected to be. Can not say they are beautiful but neither deny it, and yet they do not appear at all heroic. It is probably due to the laugh that half-closes their eyes while showing their teeth, a hardly photogenic smile but so open to make them appear wonderful”

This image accompanies us throughout the reading like it was a bright counterweight able to balance the darkness and tragedy of war and Gerda’s death. In fact, she is regarded as the first female photojournalist to cover the front lines of a war and to die while doing so. On July 26th, during the Republican army retreat at the Battle of Brunete she hopped onto the footboard of a car that was carrying wounded soldiers, then a tank crashed into its side.

This episode as the photo of the soldiers stays with us all along the reading while the time keeps expanding and contracting, back and forward, from the 1930s to the 1960s and then back and forward again, to return at the end where it had started, creating the image of Gerda through the eyes and the experiences of the friend and model Ruth Cerf and the lovers Willy Chardack and Georg Kuritzkes.

The space of the story is then represented by the cities where the storytellers live or set their memories of Gerda: Buffalo, Paris, Rome, Barcelona. These different locations find their cohesion in her versatile person. Born as Gerda Pohorylle, she grows, evolves and transforms as a shape shifter in Gerda Taro and then, with the Hungarian photographer André Friedmann, in Robert Capa.

Rober Capa, a phantom popular American photographer they invented in order to pursue their dreams: using photography to document what they perceive to be unjust, safeguarding what they identify as just, not for themselves but for the idealistic idea of humanity in which they believed in. This idea flows into the character of Rober Capa that they both use to sign their photos, until André Friedmann decides to make use of it as personal pseudonymous identity.

“Living in Paris without nothing but a Leica was the art of making a living one day at a time. They would have got much more work under a pseudonym, André Friedmann and Gerda Pohorylle were sure about it. They even invented the story of Robert Capa who made up for what they lacked: wealth, success, a visa … United in a secret society whose start up capital was an alias identity, they were even more close in life, more reckless in the dreams they want to pursue in the future.”

The novel presents a complex prose that requires a sort of predisposition on the part of the reader to process autonomously the large material gathered by the author’s deep documentary research. The life of Gerda Taro pictured by the diverse tales encourages the readers to build their own image of her picking up different elements from the memories of those more close to her.

The result is a composite mosaic able to communicate the way she was able to lighten her surroundings and, as a reflective panel to make soft the harshness of her present time characterised by the looming shadows of the economical crisis and the rise of totalitarianisms, highlighting the beauty of anyone able to believe that there is always some good in this world and that it is worth fighting for.