Wednesday, June 10, 2015

History for fans of historical fiction

by Amanda Vaill

During the Spanish Civil War, Madrid’s posh Hotel Florida hosted a motley collection of mostly foreign artists, intellectuals, journalists, war tourists and spies. The fighting was never more than a few miles away, and every so often a Fascist shell would blow out some windows or kill a pedestrian in the street below. For a taste of real action, you could drive out to the front after breakfast and still make it back in time for dinner and drinks.

Ernest Hemingway stayed at the Florida, of course, and came away with a play (The Fifth Column), a novel (For Whom the Bell Tolls), a bundle of short pieces, and a third Mrs. Hemingway. Amanda Vaill has written about Hemingway before and clearly has little love for him; here he is a boor and a dupe who never realized Soviet agents were playing him like a fiddle. He and Martha Gellhorn are the famous pair among the three couples featured in Vaill’s excellent Hotel Florida, but what the others might lack in name recognition is more than made up for in drama.

Photography or history buffs may be vaguely familiar with the doomed romance of photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, but Vaill brings them vividly to life with fresh details from friends and family. Though Capa and Taro’s story is pure big-screen material, Vaill manages to keep a lid on the melodrama without muting either the beauty or the horror of their days together.

Loyalist press officers Arturo Barea and Ilsa
Kulcsar round out Vaill’s sextet, and in some ways their story is the most gripping. Neither consumed by Capa and Taro’s youthful audacity nor insulated by the wealth, fame and American passports that shielded Hemingway and Gellhorn, Barea and Kulcsar demonstrate that civil war can kindle revolutionary passions (both political and personal) in the most ordinary hearts. Barea and Kulcsar’s story enthralls because they are unexceptional individuals caught up in exceptional times and—unlike their famous counterparts—the outcome is always in doubt.

Hotel Florida is well-researched, and Vaill’s deft exploitation of new or little-known sources gives it an unexpected richness. The brisk narration, eye for detail and abundant use of dialogue had me checking the spine label to see whether it is historical fiction or remarkably well-written history. Hotel Florida is history, but history with living flesh newly hung upon its dry and dusty bones.

Review by Don Beistle

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