The Ballad of Federico García Lorca

An acquaintance in Buenos Aires described Federico García Lorca in 1933 as a “conceited fool, a fat and petulant little charlatan.” In the course of an afternoon’s tour of the city, Lorca had been pedantic, vain, and egotistical, giving his companion the impression that “Spanish poetry began and ended with him.” The Spanish theater had similar origins and termination, while his unfinished play, Yerma, was heralded by its creator as “the consummation of Greek tragedy.”

If Lorca hoped this impression would endure, he has received impressive assistance from publishers in the US and Britain who have issued a substantial number of books on his life and works while neglecting the careers of contemporaries such as Miguel Hernández, the young goatherd who was his equal as a lyric poet, and Antonio Machado, who is widely regarded in Spain as the greatest poet of his generation. The Irish writer Ian Gibson has produced three books on Lorca, including a long and magisterial biography. And now Leslie Stainton presents us with another lengthy volume, which is informative and well researched on the poet’s life but marred by naive and inaccurate depictions of the cultural, historical, and political background.

Spaniards are surprised by the Anglo-American fascination with Lorca—it’s as if their publishers had produced half a shelfful of books on Byron while entirely ignoring the lives of Keats and Shelley—and it is hard to explain in purely literary terms. One reason, no doubt, is the performances abroad of some of Lorca’s plays, especially those dark rural tragedies that appeal to northerners by allegedly revealing the deeps of the Andalusian soul. Another is the circumstances of his death. Like Lorca, Machado and Hernández were republicans and victims of the Spanish Civil War. Machado died in exile, desolate and brokenhearted, at the end of the fighting, while Hernández succumbed three years later in the prison hospital at Alicante, having lingered under a death sentence before dying of tuberculosis. But by then the world had become inured to the savagery of the Civil War. Lorca was murdered at the beginning of the conflict, and his death was seen not only as the romantic tragedy of a poet in his prime but as a symbol of the Manichaean nature of the struggle. For he was held to represent the openness, the talent, the generosity, and the betrayed aspirations of the Republic, while his murderers simply epitomized the stupidity and bigotry of General Franco’s uprising. One of the executioners boasted that he had fired “two bullets into his arse for being a queer.”

Federico García Lorca was born in the vega of Granada, the plain outside the city, in 1898. The child of a prosperous landowner, he displayed musical and literary talents which delighted and sometimes worried his parents. Unlike his brother Paco, he was a hopeless student at the university, preferring to play the piano or sit in a café with a group of young journalists and intellectuals known as …

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