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.
There are flickers of the real thing in Mildred Adam’s book when she quotes Lorca’s friend Angel del Río, or the right passage from one of Lorca’s letters. Lorca, according to del Río, would run around New York shouting, “I don’t understand anything,” and laughing; and for a moment one sees him, delighted and bewildered, asserting his pleasure at the profusion: No entiendo nada. And in this letter to Jorge Guillén, Lorca’s boyishness, so often a fluttering pose, is viewed with intelligence and innocence and humor. He is almost twenty-eight, he has given a lecture on Góngora:
But it was serious…. I was a little sad to see that I can give a lecture without laughing at the public. [Mildred Adams translates this as “without the people laughing at me.”] I’m becoming serious. I have many moments of pure sadness. At times I am surprised to find that I am intelligent. Old age.
Mildred Adams met Lorca in Granada, and saw him again in New York and Madrid, and she obviously cared for him, and cares for his memory. But she presents him through such a haze of cliché that her book doesn’t record much apart from her own rather pallid good intentions. She is given to phrases like “That year in Spain was bad,” and of a group of poems full of wounds, tears, blood, and staring eyes, she says, “These are not the poems of a happy man.” She describes Lorca as an “errant boy,” and says his “mature life” was “one of bubbling energy”: “Federico…had hardly a negative nerve in his body.” When she meets Lorca in Granada, she sees him as “olive-skinned as a gypsy, black of hair and eyes, instinct with charm….” In spite of her acquaintance with Lorca and his family, and her claim to have based her work on “conversations, comments and interviews,” Mildred Adams gives us simply a casual, familiar outline of Lorca’s career, and the book has been carelessly read, both by Miss Adams and the publisher. Lorca is said to have started the same play twice in two different places, and he is identified both as a first-born and as a second-born son. (He was the oldest son.)
Lopez y Guerra’s film on Lorca was made for Swedish television and shown on public television in New York in August. It is a crisp and sober piece of work, based mainly on Ian Gibson’s book. It takes the conjunction of Lorca’s birth and Spain’s loss of her overseas empire from Gibson, for example, and it also borrows, if not Gibson’s actual plates, the idea of photographing the cluttered ossuary of Granada, and the pitted cemetery wall where executions took place during the Civil War. Vila-San-Juan, incidentally, thinks this is not the wall where 2,137 people were shot, according to the official list. He writes that it is a new wall, the old one having crumbled under the pressure of its ugly duties.
The film doesn’t probe, and it doesn’t argue, and its chief virtue lies in its reconstruction of things past. An aging peasant, a childhood acquaintance of Lorca’s, remembers that he was estudiando pa poeta, “studying to be a poet,” and landscapes, houses, gardens, guitars, and old photographs combine with this old man to bring back a small fragment of the early century. A good example of the way the film works is a long close-up of an old gramophone, heavy metal head, record spinning fast beneath it, while the voice of Encarnación López, known as La Argentinita, sings a popular song in an arrangement by Lorca, with Lorca accompanying her at the piano. The tinny sounds, and the well-preserved instrument, and the patience which keeps the camera still, give us back, briefly, a lost world.
Another attraction of the film lies in its interviews: with Lorca’s nurse, with his brother, with a cousin, with a nephew. Not because of anything these people say, but, again, because their faces and voices carry the past in them. Clotilde García, Lorca’s cousin, remembers his childhood, and what a fun-loving lad he was, and the whole thing begins to seem sentimental and predictable. Then she talks about Lorca’s death, and we see in her face and hear in her voice not a particular grief for Lorca but the whole reactivated terror of that time: she is living it again.
The terror of the time, of course, is the subject which Lorca’s death inevitably raises. The Nationalist repression in Granada was exceptionally severe, and Ian Gibson makes the “conservative estimate” that 4,500 people fell to it in and around Granada. In Lopez y Guerra’s film, Francisco García Lorca says his brother’s death had a “political meaning” and was in some sort an “official death.” But he adds that many other people died in the same way, “for the same reason, or for no reason.”
This has become the obligatory thing to say about Lorca’s murder, but it is no less important for that. Lorca’s miserable and unnecessary death matters not because he was a poet, but because every death matters, and because it helps to draw attention to all the others. And we can see this death because a poet, once we have read him, is not a name on a list, but a person.
Two things at least are very clear in the tangled story of Lorca’s end. One is that Lorca, for the Nationalists, was very plainly on the wrong side, and it is idle to pretend that he was not. First, he was a poet and reputedly a homosexual, and for some people that was already enough. Second, his brother-in-law was a socialist, and his family was known to be friendly with Fernando de los Ríos, the distinguished socialist minister. Third, he had given a reading of a manifesto of writers against fascism, and had taken part, in Madrid, in various leftish-looking social and literary functions. He had written that the fall of Moorish Granada to Spain in 1492, nationally celebrated as the country’s great day, was not such a good thing after all. “It was a very bad moment, even though they say the opposite in schools. An admirable civilization was lost, a poetry, an architecture, and a delicacy which were unique, to make room for a poor, cringing city….”
None of this makes him a political activist, of course. Lorca was not a communist, or even a radical, and he seems to have been anything but a hero. But someone who says, shortly after 3,000 striking workers have been massacred, that he is “on the side of those who have nothing and who are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace,” certainly looks political, however innocent or naïve or sentimental or apolitical he may actually be. By his sayings and his sympathies, if not by his considered choice, Lorca really does belong with the many victims of the Granada repression, workers, professors, doctors, schoolteachers, lawyers, whose only crime was to differ with the people who won the battle, and the war.
But the other side did the same? Of course the Republicans were in no position to be pious about their respect for the sanctity of human life, but surely in such matters it is not for opposing sides to judge each other, and still less do we need a supposedly neutral figure, magnificently armed with hindsight, to tell us that killing people is wrong. Both sides had clear measures of their own for looking at their violence and it is by these standards that we can begin to make the judgments we must make. Vila-San-Juan, for example, thinks that Lorca’s murder may have been hurried up because the Nationalist general Enrique Varela was expected in Granada, and Varela did not like irregular executions. The place had to be cleaned up before he got there. And then oddly, faced with this man who is a soldier and a rebel against the republic but not a butcher or a fanatic, with the one man in his book who offers him a serious chance of making some sort of moral distinction in a hopeless morass, Vila-San-Juan can only sneer: “Varela wages war with white gloves on.”
The second thing that is clear in Lorca’s story is that the Nationalists knew at once that they had made a mistake, or had allowed some of their thuggish supporters to make one for them. They may have underestimated Lorca’s fame, but not for long, because by August 20, 1936, General Queipo de Llano was listing red atrocities on Radio Seville, including the names of various right-wing writers, supposedly assassinated by the Republicans, who were still enjoying perfect health. Gibson thinks this helps to prove Queipo’s implication in Lorca’s death. Certainly it suggests he knew about it and was worried, and wanted to create, as Vila-San-Juan says, a smoke screen of counteraccusation. And of course, it is just this sense of a mistake made that has ensured so long a silence on the subject in Spain. The official view was that “uncontrollable elements” got out of hand in the early days of the uprising, and that Lorca’s death was just one of those unfortunate things. The interest of Vila-San-Juan’s work, published in the last year of Franco’s life, is that it is rather more precise than that.
It is a glossy book, with many fine pictures, and some intriguing details; rather sloppily written but very decent in its general intention. Most of what needs to be said about it can be said by commenting on the two elements in its title. First, Toda la verdad, because the whole truth is being told in Spain, not because it is being discovered. Vila-San-Juan has done a lot of research of his own, and is careful to include a few photographs of himself in Granada, chatting to essential witnesses. But his account generally follows that of Gibson and Marcelle Auclair.4 He seems to worry a bit about this, and makes some very ungenerous remarks about Gibson. The reason may be political in part—Vila-San-Juan wants to tell the truth about Lorca, but he doesn’t want to be associated with the enemies of the regime. Yet he does seem genuinely peeved that Gibson managed to talk to Ramón Ruiz Alonso, the murky character who arrested Lorca, and who has talked to virtually no one else.
The importance of the word Asesinado in the title is that that is the term which has been avoided for so long. Vicente Aleixandre, for example, in Lopez y Guerra’s film, says Lorca “died young,” and one has the feeling of a recognized euphemism dropping into place. Lorca’s Obras Completas have a chronology which simply notes, for 1936, “Agosto.-Muere.” José Luis Cano invented an elegant solution by saying in his biography that Lorca “fell,” but recording in his chronology—and this in a book published in 1962—that Lorca was “arrested and taken to Víznar, where he (was) shot at dawn on the 19th.”
All kinds of doubts remain. Did Ruiz Alonso arrest Lorca on his own authority, or did he have an official warrant? If he did, who signed it? Did Ruiz Alonso play any further part in Lorca’s last days? Was there personal rancor between the two men? Why did Valdés Guzmán, the Civil Governor of Granada, say that Lorca had already been taken away and was probably dead when the poet was actually still in the building where Valdés himself had his office? Gibson and Vila-San-Juan both think he was playing for time. But time for what? Did he make the decision to have Lorca killed himself, or did he talk to Queipo de Llano in Seville? Did the Rosales brothers, in whose house Lorca was arrested, try as hard as they say they did to get him freed? Why did Miguel Rosales, Luis’s elder brother, allow Lorca to be removed in the first place? And so on. I find these fascinating questions, but they belong to the realm of the detective story, and we have known, since the publication of Gibson’s book, just about everything we really need to know about Lorca’s death.
“What does it all matter, so late in the story?” Mildred Adams asks, unconsciously echoing one of the official lines of Franco’s Spain. It is true that history never repeats itself exactly, and that we never learn. But the assassination of Lorca raises questions rather more delicate than those of who done it and why. How important is Lorca’s innocence, for example? What if he had been a political activist? What if he had been a political activist on the other side? What are the criteria for establishing the necessity of violence or death in any given case? Unless we are prepared to deplore all wars and all rebellions, it seems to me we must keep asking such questions, because we can’t afford to answer them only once.
November 24, 1977