In spite of the “boom” in Latin American fiction, the best-known modern figure in Latino letters still is Federico Garcia Lorca. No doubt the tragic circumstances of the poet’s death, as well as the indelible mark that he left upon everyone who knew him, have contributed to the fascination that he exercises. And yet, as his life and death recede into the distance, the importance of his work continues to grow. Now Ian Gibson’s excellent book, “Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life,” the best and most complete biography of Lorca to date, adds new vigor to the lasting appeal of his literary presence.
Federico Garcia Lorca was born in 1898 in Fuente Vaqueros, a village in the vega (cultivated lands) of Granada. His father was a wealthy, enlightened landowner and businessman; his mother had been a schoolteacher. Although Gibson does not dwell on the poet’s early years, he is very good at communicating the sense of place of the vega and of Granada, with its striking beauty, rich history and deep-seated conservatism. Lorca always maintained that he felt the strongest links to the countryside of Granada and to its people (he would speak of “telluric” forces pulling at him).
In his autobiography “The Lost Grove,” the poet Rafael Alberti recalls that “there was magic . . . something irresistible in everything Federico did. How could anyone forget him after having seen him or heard him just once? He was a truly fascinating human being: singing, alone or at the piano, reciting, telling jokes and even talking nonsense.” And in his memoirs (“Life Above Board”) Jose Moreno Villa, also a poet and Lorca’s friend, wonders whether “the fascination that he produced was due to the happy conjunction of the learned and the popular, the primary, childlike and fresh interlaced with the reflexive and the rigorous.”
The magical power of Lorca’s personality may be properly gauged if one remembers that it emerged against the background of the ‘20s and ‘30s, a time of extraordinary intellectual and artistic revival in Spain, with poetry at the forefront of literary renovation. Juan Ramon Jimenez and Antonio Machado, master poets of an earlier generation, were mentors to an uncommonly gifted group of young poets--the generation of 1927, as it came to be called--numbering, among others, Lorca himself, Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Gernuda, Jorge Guillen and Pedro Salinas. Years later, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda would recall that he “never again saw anything that could approach” such an outburst of creativity. Without a doubt, the most widely admired writer of the time was Federico Garcia Lorca.
The combination of personal magnetism, brilliant gifts and a tragic death at the hands of the fascists in 1936 turned Lorca into a mythical figure of emblematic power. The Left saw his assassination as an example of the fanatic anti-intellectualism of the Franco insurgency. The Right obscured the facts or misrepresented the event as the unfortunate result of a personal, somewhat sordid, vendetta. One of this biography’s most remarkable achievements is precisely to offer the clearest and best-documented rendition of the poet’s final days. Gibson is careful to identify responsibilities, so as to separate Lorca’s own tragedy from the burden of historical representativeness.
Yet much of this burden already was thrust upon the poet in his lifetime. The tremendous success of his “Gypsy Ballads” across all levels of society and on two continents made Lorca the best-known literary figure in the Hispanic world. People of all sorts, cultivated and illiterate alike, memorized the “ballads”; at one point he had an unprecedented three plays running concurrently in Madrid. During his lifetime, his tragedy “Blood Wedding” became the most successful play ever staged in Spain or Latin America. He made an enormously successful tour of Argentina, he was feted in Cuba, charmed Hispanists and their friends in New York. The greatest actresses in Madrid and Buenos Aires begged him to do plays for them. Lorca’s success, added to his immense charm, his many talents, and his love of the people, transformed him into the epitome of Spain’s cultural and political renewal.
In order to dispel the mythical accretions that have obscured our understanding of Federico Garcia Lorca, Gibson pursues a number of dominant themes that will bridge the gap between the poet’s private and public figures: the poet’s homosexuality, his political stance, his paralyzing fear of death. As to Lorca’s politics, it was part of the original outcry at the assassination to claim that Lorca was entirely apolitical. The fact is, as Gibson shows, that Lorca frequently spoke up on political issues expressing his leftist views and that he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Republic.
Furthermore, both his theater (in particular “Mariana Pineda” and the tragic trilogy “Yerma,” “Blood Wedding” and “The House of Bernarda Alba) and his poetry (the powerful sympathy for blacks in “Poet in New York,” the celebration of Gypsies, another pariah group, in “Gypsy Ballads”) clearly condemned the forces of oppression, both cultural and political. The Right Wing in Spain understood this well when they consistently attacked him in the press.
Gibson is less successful in evoking the personalities of Lorca’s parents, in particular that of his mother, whom the poet considered the most important force in his life. Wisely he does not engage in psychoanalytical speculation on the family relationships that shaped the poet’s persona and his sexual bent. Perhaps because of the scant information that Gibson can garner on Lorca’s childhood, the poet’s inner man remains somewhat elusive. It was not infrequent for Lorca to become suddenly quiet in the midst of a conversation, seized by what he would describe as his “dramones” (blue funks). Gibson can only guess at the reasons for such sudden depressions, a result perhaps of Lorca’s inability to express freely his homosexuality or of the anguish that would overcome him at the thought of death.
One of the biography’s most valuable contributions is that it stresses the importance of Lorca’s homosexual preference. It is a necessary emphasis, because even now this facet of his life is ignored by some who fear that it might tarnish the poet’s image. While Lorca was a homosexual, he was not a gay poet in the sense that his work does not particularly express this point of view. Some works make his feelings clear, such as the “Ode to Walt Whitman,” or the play “The Public,” which Lorca thought was unperformable. But the theme of frustrated love, for instance, which runs through all of Lorca’s work, transcends all its individual manifestations.
Ian Gibson, a Protestant Irishman, describes his involvement with the life of Lorca as a 30-year-long obsession. (The present book is a slightly shorter version of a two-volume work that appeared first in Spanish (1985, 1987), and had been preceded by another book on Lorca’s death). Along the way, he became a permanent resident in Spain and then a Spanish citizen. Gibson has diligently pursued an astonishing array of documentary sources. The reader comes away not only with as detailed a picture of Lorca’s life as present documentation allows but also with an excellent view of the intellectual and political ferment of those crucial decades. “Federico Garcia Lorca: A Life” is a book both to be consulted and enjoyed.