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Federico García Lorca: the poet at five in the afternoon

Culture Column by Mike Gonzalez, April 2008

When fascist thugs murdered the 38 year old poet Federico García Lorca in Granada in August 1936, they pinned a note to his body. It denounced the writer for his politics and for his homosexuality.

But all that they achieved was that Lorca's name would still be known and celebrated two generations later. He would not die like his bullfighter friend Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, at five in the afternoon.

"A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A frail of lime already prepared
at five in the afternoon.
The rest was death and death alone
at five in the afternoon."

Lorca was murdered as the Spanish Civil War began. Five years before, when the Second Republic was established, he was part of a cultural revolution that accompanied political change. His theatre company La Barraca travelled across rural Spain, presenting his plays in village squares and small towns. Like his poetry, they found inspiration in the popular traditions of the south, and in particular in the flamenco music of Andalucia.

But Lorca was not, as some have tried to paint him, a folklorist collecting traditions and conserving them. In his wonderful dramas, the language of song draws out the tragedies and bitter conflicts of rural life - and finds in them images of a violent and repressive conservative Spain - the very Spain that would take its revenge on him in Granada.

His main characters are tragic women torn between an oppressive and crippling tradition and the power of their passions. Yerma (her name means barren) cannot have children, yet she is full of desire and yearning. Her sexuality is of little interest to her husband, for whom her sole function is to guarantee the continuity of ownership of the land. Her lover, a shepherd, calls her to another world - but she cannot go.

In "Blood Weddings" the bride escapes with her lover, abandoning her groom at the altar - and the community takes a terrible revenge as her husband and lover kill one another in a ritual duel as they look on. And in "The House of Bernarda Alba" a matriarchal family struggles with the rules of mourning that rob them of their right to live out the desire that is symbolised by the sound of a horse galloping past the house where they are imprisoned.

Some critics see Lorca as "obsessed with destiny and death". But the destiny that imprisons human beings is a structure made and sustained by human beings, not a law of nature. The conflict at the heart of his writing is between freedom and repression, represented by the Civil Guard that terrorised rural Spain for so long.

"Black are the horses.
The horseshoes are black.
On the dark capes glisten
stains of ink and wax.
Their skulls are leaden
which is why they do not weep.
Hunchbacked and nocturnal
where they go, they command
silences of dark rubber
and fears like fine sand..."

As a young man, Lorca (an accomplished pianist) worked with the composer Manuel de Falla to rediscover the musical traditions of Spain. His lecture on "el cante jondo", or deep song, was a celebration of flamenco tradition, but a rewriting of it too.

Lorca was part of the artistic avant-garde. In Madrid he spent a wild Bohemian youth with Luis Buñuel, the film director, and with the young Salvador Dalí, who loved the poet to distraction, but was too afraid of his own homosexuality to consummate the relationship. Not so Lorca, who performed and sang and danced his way through Madrid's university district, before travelling in 1929 to New York - the New York of the Depression and the Harlem Renaissance.

His New York poems are harsh and difficult at times, at others erotic and exhilarating.

They are also completely rooted in the experience of the modern world, its clashing images, its brutal momentary encounters, its occasional love affairs.

"The New York dawn has
four columns of mud
and a hurricane of black doves
that paddle in rotten waters
The New York dawn grieves
along the immense stairways,
seeking amidst the groins
the spikes of fine-drawn anguish."

Lorca saw in the modern and the traditional worlds the same clash between barbarity on the one hand, and love and beauty on the other. His dramas are set in the repressive world of southern Spain, still locked in a world that imprisons its people. But his poetry is a celebration of passion and desire.

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