Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill, book review: Meticulous Spanish Civil War account lacks firepower

 

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The Independent Culture

Hotel Florida is ambitious: Amanda Vaill talks us through the Spanish Civil War while providing biographies of six people who witnessed it: writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and press officers Arturo Barea and Ilsa Kulcsar.

Barea was a local, but the others were foreigners, drawn to Spain by ideology, adventure and ambition. It's easy to see what attracted them: Hotel Florida teems with incident, its range as riotous and barnstorming as the war itself. Vaill is a thorough and responsible guide besides, and nothing if not meticulous. Yet she doesn't wear her research lightly. It is revealing, for example, that Hemingway liked to throw parties in his hotel room and listen to Chopin records as the bombs fell; less so that "the opus 33 mazurka, number 4, and the opus 47 A-Y at minor ballade were favourites".

When Capa and Taro make it to the front for the first time, the text is invaded by "apparently"s, "probably"s, "seemingly"s and "possibly"s. We've reached the hill where Capa photographed The Falling Soldier, the authenticity of which is still disputed today: is it a soldier being shot, pretending to be shot, or both? Vaill does not risk a verdict.

The 40 pages of notes at the end show how seriously Vaill takes corroboration. Which is commendable, except that in her author's note she states "Hotel Florida is a narrative, not an academic analysis": surely the point of employing a narrative device is to breathe life into events and characters.

Because Vaill is so scrupulously loyal to her sources, she tells instead of shows. The protagonists remain rather wooden as a consequence, with the possible exception of Hemingway, who breaks through by sheer force of personality. Furthermore, by adhering to other people's accounts, Hotel Florida sacrifices a voice of its own: for all its great energy and anecdote, it often reads like a summary of something else.

Little links the six main characters (not even the Hotel Florida, which features only fleetingly), but they are all shown grappling with the pros and cons of reporting the truth. Capa, Taro, Hemingway and Gellhorn have few qualms about letting lack of fact get in the way of a good story, especially if the story serves the cause. Vaill might have followed their lead and been a touch bolder, sticking to the important facts but allowing herself some freedom when filling in the narrative gaps.

Jethro Soutar is co-editor and co-translator of 'The Football Crónicas', published in May by Ragpicker Press

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