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The Lorca Murder Case

García Lorca, Asesinado: Toda la verdad

by José Luis Vila-San-Juan
Editorial Planeta, 299 pp., 500 ptas

Federico García Lorca: Murder in Granada

directed by Humberto Lopez y Guerra
Swedish Radio TV/Channel 13

The death of a writer changes his writings, fills them with apparent hints and prophecies. If the writer is Spanish, the hints of death itself are overwhelming, and the prophecies often seem uncanny. Assassination is mentioned nine times in Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York, for example—once actually in the eerie phrase Comprendí que me habían asesinado, “I realized I had been assassinated.” The effect of this, of course, is to lend a weird pathos to the squalid occasion in 1936 when Lorca was taken out to a road near his native Granada, and literally assassinated. But another effect is to make the poems themselves seem curiously shallow, metaphorical in the thinnest, most literary sense, only metaphorical, the work of a man who doesn’t know (or care) what assassination really means.

Tropezando con mi rostro distinto de cada día.
¡Asesinado por el cielo!….

[Running into the faces that I wear, different from day to day.
Assassinated by the sky…]

y ví dos niños locos que empujaban llorando las pupilas de un asesino…
[and I saw two crazy children in tears as they pushed the pupils of an assassin…]

Accounts of Lorca’s death provoke a similar double effect when they fall for the irresistible quotation from his work. Humberto Lopez y Guerra’s film discreetly shows a cluster of trees, with an eloquent guitar in the soundtrack. Then there is silence. Shots are heard. The guitar resumes, and we see the text of a well-known Lorca poem called “Memento,” which begins

Cuando yo me muera,
enterradme con mi guitarra
bajo la arena…
[When I die
bury me with my guitar
under the sand…]

Mildred Adams quotes from another well-known poem (“Mother, when I die…/ Send blue telegrams / To go from South to North”), and Ian Gibson1 quotes yet another (“If I die, / leave the balcony open”). José Luis Cano2 confects a miniature Lorca anthology to see the poet to his death, and ends with the last lines of Lorca’s lament for his friend, the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías:

Yo canto su elegancia con palabras que gimen
y recuerdo una brisa triste por los olivos.
[I sing his elegance in moaning words,
and I remember a sad breeze in the olive trees.]

José Luis Vila-San-Juan has a little anthology of his own, but he closes with the same poem, and goes Cano one better by insinuating the imagery of the poem into the historical landscape: “The olive trees, close to the road, cast almost nonexistent shadows in the early morning light. The dawn breeze moves them sadly.” It seems to be true that Lorca was shot near an olive grove, but the rest, as Verlaine said in a rather different context, is literature.

The intention in all these cases is kindly. A little grace is to be added to Lorca’s dying, and he is to write his own epitaph..But his death was not graceful, he was the frightened victim of horribly careless brutality, and Vila-San-Juan’s performance is the most curious of all in this respect: while he insists that Lorca died with his hands tied, and that he was shot in the back and was not a hero, he is busy with the sad breeze in the olive trees. Even Ian Gibson, who has done more than anyone else to uncover the facts about Lorca’s end, will not contemplate them in all their shabbiness, and clutches finally at a mystic parable: “Perhaps it was inevitable, in some way we cannot understand, that Lorca…should have been murdered in…Granada….” It was not inevitable, as Gibson well knows, and Lorca’s poems were not his epitaphs. They were poems, and the result of reading them into Lorca’s death is to prettify a very unpretty business, and to make the poems look rather slight into the bargain.

Of course, poetry should not have to face such a cruel literal reading of its figures. But there is a sense in which good figures will survive such a confrontation; or conversely, a sense in which those figures that won’t survive it don’t deserve to. The quoted poems about dying are less vulnerable than those in Poeta en Nueva York, because they are more modest and less metaphorical. With the exception of the Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, they are pastoral poems in Empson’s definition: a complicated mind speaks through a simple voice. Yet if they are not shallow, these poems are slender, and in spite of appearances they make a poor accompaniment to Lorca’s murder. They are simply not about the disheveled deaths of the historical world. Their tone, precisely, is that of a man who has no intention of dying except in a poem.

Literature is not to be confused with life (or death), but good literature is not dwarfed by life or death either, and Lorca understood this perfectly well. “A poet,” he once said, “has to be a professor of the five bodily senses.” And again: “The poetic imagination travels and transforms things…; but it always…works with facts belonging to the most precise and unadulterated reality.” As I have suggested, Lorca didn’t always practice what he preached. But he knew what he was preaching, and in his best poems and plays he did practice it. Two examples.

The Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, on the whole an overrated poem, has a marvelous final section which transcends the sentimentality and histrionics of the rest, and part of it reads as follows:

   El otoño vendrá con caracolas,
uva de niebla y montes agrupados,
pero nadie querrá mirar tus ojos
porque te has muerto para siempre.

Porque te has muerto para siempre

como todos los muertos de la Tierra,
como todos los muertos que se olvidan
en un montón de perros apagados.

[Autumn will come with snails,
grapes of mist and clustered moun- tains,
but no one will want to look at your eyes
because you have died forever.

Because you have died forever,
like all the dead people on earth,
like all the dead, forgotten people,
flung on a pile of defunct dogs.]

The snails, chosen among the multiple appurtenances of autumn, are a good example of precise and unadulterated reality being picked up by the poetic imagination, and the word I have translated as defunct means extinguished. The dogs have been put out like lights, and the simple, sudden metaphor animates them even as it registers their demise.

In his play La Casa de Bernarda Alba, Lorca appears to offer a grimly realistic picture of the plight of women in Spain. His note to the play says it is intended as a “photographic documentary,” and a character says at one point that “To be born a woman is the greatest punishment.” Certainly the tyrannical Bernarda Alba and her five desperate daughters must have had plenty of counterparts in Spanish reality, and in a slightly less literal sense they have plenty of counterparts all over the place. But the play’s horribly suppressed and divided passions seem also to belong to Lorca’s own mind and, even more remarkably, to the state of Spain in 1936—Lorca finished the play two months before he died. “Do you see this silence,” a servant says of the quiet house of Bernarda Alba. “Well, there is a storm in every room. The day they break out, they will sweep us all away.”

There is nothing magical about this. Lorca knew what the mood of Spain was, and was oppressed by it himself. But the incorporation of this mood, and of his own moods, into a play that remains seriously concerned with Bernarda Alba and her daughters is a good instance of the benefits to be drawn from the imagination’s fidelity to facts.

Federico García Lorca was born in 1898, in Fuente Vaqueros, near Granada. His father was a well-to-do land-owner, and his much-loved mother had been a schoolteacher. Lorca was sensitive and sickly as a child, and a poor scholar. In 1919, ostensibly pursuing his half-hearted study of the law, he left the University of Granada for Madrid, where his friends included Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, and where he began to write in earnest: plays, poems, literary and musical lectures. His homosexuality seems to have become clear to himself and others at this time, although there is a story of Lorca, aged twenty-one, sobbing in distress because a friend was going around saying he was an invert. A later poem, “Oda a Walt Whitman,” distinguishes between sensitive, suffering homosexuals, “the perplexed, the pure ones,” and ugly, poisonous “city queers”; and a French critic, Jean-Louis Schonberg, has erected a whole theory of Lorca’s assassination on the basis of this distinction. Lorca’s notion of purity, in this theory, irritated one or two impure homosexuals in Granada, and they took their revenge by denouncing him to the authorities: “C’est un règlement de comptes entre invertis.”3 Needless to say, this view was warmly welcomed in Spain in the Fifties, since it took Lorca’s death altogether out of the realm of politics.

In 1929, after an emotional crisis which no one seems to want to discuss, Lorca went to New York for a year, and thence to Cuba. Back in Spain, in the new Republic, he directed and wrote plays for a traveling theater called La Barraca, and by 1933, with the opening of the very successful Bodas de Sangre, he was a famous poet—his Romancero Gitano, published in 1928, was the most popular book of verse to appear in Spain in fifty years. He made a long visit to Buenos Aires, wrote Yerma; and in July 1936, after hesitating about whether to stay in Madrid or to go down to Granada for the summer, went home for the last time.

The Nationalist uprising began the day he arrived in Granada. He was harassed in his father’s house, and took refuge with his friend Luis Rosales. But the Falangist sympathies of the Rosales family did not afford the protection everyone thought they might, and Lorca was arrested on August 16—the same day that his brother-in-law, the socialist mayor of Granada, was executed. In the early morning of August 19, Lorca, along with three other men (four in some versions), was killed near the village of Víznar, a military outpost close to the front of the fighting against the Republicans.

The poet Vicente Aleixandre, interviewed in Lopez y Guerra’s film, says that Lorca’s poetry could be compared to that of several Spanish contemporaries (including, by implication, Aleixandre’s own), but that his personality was incomparable, and that he “raised sympathy to a cosmic level.” This strikes me as gibberish, but it points to a truth. Lorca’s best writing includes his personality without exploiting it, but there is a strain of sheer, strenuous charm in the rest of his work, especially in the poetry and the lectures, a continuing attempt to win people over by helplessness and brilliance. This can be engaging, and it can be tiresome, and it is often the latter. But it obviously does run the poet and the person into a single character, and a portrait of Lorca ought to convey something of the remarkable attraction he exercised on people who knew him. Lopez y Guerra tries to do this by photographing a lot of Lorca’s fragile and wistful drawings, and by having Ana María Dalí reminisce affectionately on the soundtrack. But this simply reasserts the attraction without showing it.

  1. 1

    The Death of Lorca (J. Philip O’Hara, 1973).

  2. 2

    García Lorca: biografía ilustrada (Barcelona: Destino, 1962).

  3. 3

    Federico García Lorca: L’homme et l’oeuvre (Paris: Plon, 1956).

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