Capa’s photograph shows the moment when all the unvoiced hopes in that photograph – in that look – come true. And not just the hopes of Kertesz’s couple, but the hopes of all lovers separated by war.
The hot Mediterranean landscape. Dust on the bicycle tires. The sun on her tanned arms. Their shadows mingling. The flutter of butterflies above the tangled hedgerow. The crumbling wall at the field’s edge is the result not of the sudden obliteration of bombs, but of the slow attrition of seasons. It is possible to grow old in this landscape. All the sounds – the rustle of cicadas, the noise of his boots on the road, the slow whir of the bicycle (his or hers? It has a crossbar) – offer an irenic contrast to the deafening machinery of tanks and artillery. The photograph would be diminished without the bicycle. It would be ruined without her long hair. Her hair says this is how she was when he left, she has not changed, she has remained true to him.
Noticing these things fills me with longing. I want to be that soldier.
Since that is impossible, I resolve to go on a cycling holiday in Sicily. I want, also, to know their story. When did they meet? Have they made love? How long have they been walking? Where are they heading? How long is the journey? The photograph itself urges us to ask questions like this, but if we look – and listen – hard it will provide the answers. Listen.
They do not care how long the walk ahead of them is, the greater the distance, the longer they can be together like this. She will ask about the things that have happened to him, he will be hesitant at first, but there is no hurry. She begins to remember his silence, the way it was implied by his handwriting, by the letters he sent. Eventually, he will tell her of the friends he has lost, the terrible things he has seen. He is impatient for news of friends and relatives, back in their village or town.
She will tell him about her brother, who was also in the army and who was wounded, about his parents, about the funny thing that happened to the schoolteacher and the butcher’s dog. They will walk along, their shoulders bumping, noticing everything about each other again, each a little apprehensive of disappointing the other in some small way. At some stage, perhaps when they are resting by the roadside or perhaps when they lie down to sleep under the star-clogged sky, she will turn to him and say, “Am I still as pretty as when you left?”
Knowing what his answer will be, feeling the roughness of his hand as he pushes the hair behind her ear, watching his mouth as he says, “More. Much more.”
And the defeat of Italy, the end of the war? Maybe they will talk of that too, but not now, not now.
Geoff Dyer’s book, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, from which this is excerpted, just won the National Book Critics Circle award, Now you have some sense of why.