14 Juillet

The frenetic pace of rural life is killing me. I need a break in some escargot-paced haven like, oh, I don’t know, New York. Yesterday was of course Bastille Day, otherwise known as “Let’s tear down the prison and behead the king” day, but here in Maury it is an occasion to honor France’s soldiers and for that we need to put aside politics, ignore the immorality of colonialism and simply say: “Merci”, because the only surviving ancien combattants in town served in Algeria. So while Macron was beguiling Trump with war toys in Paris, Charlie, the mayor, was pinning another medal on an old soldier.

The Mayor says a few words
Les Pompiers Salute

The day began with citizens, elected officials and the fire brigade marching from City Hall, looping around town to the cemetery where flowers were laid at the war memorial and after a few moments of respectful silence, Charlie said a few words about sacrifice and the responsibility of all of us to remember the terrible cost of war. I talked with the Mayor as we walked and asked him why Macron was hosting, and thereby honoring Trump. He said he thought Macron honestly believed he could make some progress and perhaps persuade the American to reconsider his position on climate change, but also the young French President wants to be the leader of Europe and saw an opportunity when it became obvious that Trump and Merkel will not be buddies.

The Mayor, members of the Council, honorees

The procession made its way back through town to City Hall where the old soldiers were acknowledged, pictures were taken, and most everyone adjourned to the Maison du Terroir for an apero. I had to skip the drinks because a Brit from my French class had invited me to a village meal in Palairac, a tiny commune about 40 minutes away in the Corbières mountains. Lovely melon with a bit of smoked ham, squid stuffed with pork, rice, ice cream, and lots of very nice local wine. There was music, dancing, and a lively mix of French and English. I was introduced as an American but endorsed as anti-Trump.

Palairac
The Musicians
Band Uniform
Lunch

Back home, I met Bardot in the garden who blessed me with a sack of the summer’s first tomatoes. There was time for a brief nap until Michel came by to fix a leaky faucet and then off to St. Paul for dinner with Marcel, Carrie, and Marcel’s parents. As quiet and darkness settled in on us, and Carrie put Jordi to bed, I went back to Maury to end the day with fireworks and a glass of Maury, along with the largest crowd I’d ever seen in town. I’d guess there were around 300 people there, including an unusually large number of children, an optimistic note to close a full day of gentle wholesomeness, the best of village life.

©2017 Ron Scherl

A Tale of Two (or Three) Suitcases

One of the joys of researching a historical novel is the uncovering of parallels, unrelated facts that nevertheless strike me as significant. When you read a lot of mysteries, as I do, you come to believe there is no such thing as coincidence. Everything is significant.

The scope of the novel encompasses several wars from 1936 to 1962 and there are many parallels involved. War does awful things to people no matter who’s fighting; brutality breeds only more brutality and what’s learned is passed through generations. You torture mine, I’ll torture yours even more. It’s a chain of iniquity that continues to this day.

But we were talking about suitcases. When photojournalist, Robert Capa, fled Paris as the Nazis arrived, he may have had with him a suitcase full of negatives from the Spanish Civil War, photos by Gerda Taro and David Seymour (Chim) as well as Capa. The suitcase was lost for many years, until it turned up in Mexico in 1995. When it was found, it was hoped by many including Capa’s brother Cornell, that it would contain the negative of Falling Soldier, Capa’s most famous photo that is said to depict the moment of death of a Spanish Republican soldier. Cornell Capa’s hope was that finding the negative intact and in sequence would finally put to rest the controversy that has always followed the photo: real, or was it staged?

Unfortunately the negative was not in the case, the controversy continues, and no one is absolutely certain how the suitcase wound up in Mexico. I have a theory about that and it fits nicely in a novel.

The parallel suitcase belonged to Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish philosopher who committed suicide in France after fleeing the Nazis, appearing to make it safely to Spain on his way to America, then being turned back by Franco’s guards. Despairing, ill, fearing he would be turned over to the Nazis, and unable to summon the energy to try again, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine in Portbou, Catalonia on the French/Spanish border. The suitcase containing the manuscript of an unpublished book he had carried from Germany was never found.

In a totally unrelated postscript: Harry “Suitcase” Simpson was a well-traveled Major League ballplayer who played for seventeen different teams in the majors, minors, and Negro Leagues. There are two theories on the nickname: one because he was always being traded and two, because his size thirteen shoes reminded a sportswriter of a cartoon character named “Suitcase.” I can’t find any evidence that Harry ever lost a suitcase and as far as I know, he never met either Capa or Benjamin, but I’ll take any opportunity to throw in a baseball reference.

©2015 Ron Scherl

Capa Two

Just a few more thoughts on Capa before we move on. Larry Walker’s comment about belief and reality strikes home: “If I believe the Capa snap is a picture of a soldier just killed, lacking any evidence one way or the other, does it matter?”

Capa’s job was to report on the war in support of the Republican cause. He was employed by Vu magazine, and the photos appeared in a special issue supporting the Republicans. He was, in short, a propagandist. If he was shooting training exercises and an editor seeing the picture with the caption, The Falling Soldier chose to believe it was a picture of a man dying, what difference does it make? Either way it succeeds in its purpose, which was to create sympathy for the Republican cause.

I doubt Capa set out to deceive, but he gave at least three different versions of the circumstances of the photo. In one he said that he was ducking down beside the hill and holding the camera over his head when he released the shutter. The film was then sent off to France to be developed. If this is true, he didn’t know what he had captured. When the magazine claimed it was the moment of death, what could Capa do?

If he contradicted the editors, he would lose all credibility, probably forever, and certainly lose his job. He would also damage the cause he passionately supported. Capa was a gambler: sometimes poker, sometimes he put his life on the line. In this case, when everyone felt he held the winning hand, and it would have been foolish to fold, he went all in. Was it a bluff? Maybe. We’ll probably never know, but it makes for a very interesting story.

A fascinating and enigmatic man who hated war and was never happy when he was away from it, Capa spent his life surrounded by beautiful women, poker playing artists, and soldiers fighting for their cause, their country, or just their lives. He wasn’t a very good poker player – Huston would win back all the fees he paid him to shoot stills for his films – and he was never able to commit to any of the women he loved. He was a great war photographer and a dedicated anti-fascist who lost his life covering the ridiculously futile French colonial effort in Vietnam for the vehemently anti-communist Life magazine of Henry Luce. The final irony in a complex life.

Here’s a link to Magnum Photos, the cooperative of photojournalists founded by Capa and others where you can view The Falling Soldier and a whole lot of other great images.

http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL535353