Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Murder of a Poet

Andalusian landscape
I read a book over the Hari Raya (End of Ramadan Festival) break, which affected me deeply, stirring up old concerns about the hazardous business of being a certain kind of writer in a certain kind of society. The kind of writer I have in mind is not, as you might think, one who is ideologically committed or fired by topical issues that prick his social conscience and because of that gets into conflict with a repressive State. The writer I am thinking of is one whose very stance as a writer and as an individual and the values that inform his non-topical writings and his unconventional lifestyle constitute a challenge, not so much to the State but to society at large. I am thinking of the writer who cherishes an open mind (and heart), and that mere openness –openness to life basically – is an offence to his society. The society in question may on the surface look modern and open but in reality is still ruled by group taboos, ancient prejudices and life-denying pieties.
The subject of the book that sets me thinking again about this old problem may seem remote, both in terms of geography and time. It is a biography of a Spanish poet and playwright who died more than half a century ago. But if you believe as I do that history can repeat itself, in different situations, different cultures, but with a familiar pattern of conflict underlying them, you might consider the tragic story of this poet not so irrelevant to us. The poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, was brutally murdered near his hometown of Granada at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War between the Nationalist (read Fascist) rebels and the Republican government in 1936.

Federico Garcia Lorca in 1914
He was then only 38 and at he height of his powers as a poet and playwright. His murderers were Fascist thugs who took advantage of the chaos of the early days of the civil war to settle old scores with the poet they hated so much. During the civil war, which ended with the victory of the Nationalists under General Franco in 1939, the name of the murdered poet became a powerful political symbol of the Left. And it was used by cynical Communist propagandists to exploit the idealism of progressive writers the world over. The myth of Lorca as a martyr of communism has long been exploded. But the idea that was nevertheless an example of the politically committed writer who had to pay with his life for his commitment seems to persist, especially among people who have neither read his writing nor know much about his life.
That the case of Lorca is more complicated, and more disturbing, is shown by the new biography by Ian Gibson (Faber paperback, 1990). The picture of the poet that emerges from this superb book is that of a man who was inspired by an exuberant lust for life yet haunted by an obsession with death. The two sides of his self were rooted in the ambivalence of his heritage and his equally ambivalent attitude to it. Ambivalence and paradox, in fact, seem to run right through the life and work of this Andalusian prodigy. He was one of the most regional of Spanish writers rooted to the soil of Andalusia, its blood and mire, songs of joy and laments of despair, and yet universal in his appeal. In form, he was both traditional and modern, rooted to the ballads and folk music of the peasants and the Gypsies, but also open to the avant-garde influence of the day (he was a close friend and early collaborator of Salvador Dali). Lorca’s universalism is not the sort much cared for by ideologues. His universalism has to do with the primitive yearnings of humanity, the desires of the spirit and the flesh, and the tragic consequences of the denial or betrayal of those desires.

The oppression that he was deeply concerned with, was not so much political or economic oppression (though he was not unmindful of these), but the oppression of healthy human instincts by a society ruled by a life-denying religious orthodoxy and grimly patriarchal values and codes of conduct. Just as Lorca was a true son of Spain who hated the narrow and sterile patriotism of the bourgeoisie and the Nationalists, he was a true if unorthodox Catholic who hated the corrupt and repressive Church. In their turn, the Church and the Nationalists, cheerless guardians of the national soul, and the national honour, considered minds like Lorca a corrupting “cosmopolitan” or “alien” influence that must be exterminated at all costs. After the myth of Lorca as a martyr of Communism had been exploded, the actual circumstances of and the real reasons for his murder became a subject for speculation.
For a long time, because of the taboo on the poet’s name imposed by the Franco regime, it was difficult to establish what actually happened in Granada during those chaotic early days of the civil war. Ian Gibson, author of an earlier study of the murder (banned by the Franco regime), has now in this full length biography placed the tragic event in the context of the poet’s whole life and of the Spanish society of his time. We are as a result in a better position to understand the deep-seated as well as the immediate reasons why Lorca was murdered. Lorca may not have been a political writer in the commonly understood sense of the term. But he was even more “subversive” than the most radical of political writers.

Lorca was “subversive” because he was the voice of primal energies which questioned the repressive orthodoxies of his society and religion, both in the realms of the body and the spirit. “As for me,” he was recorded to have said, “I’ll never be political. I’m a revolutionary, because all true poets are revolutionaries.” What he meant by “revolutionary” could be inferred from another remark: “The day we stop resisting our instinct, we’ll have learnt how to live.” His openness to life and all its possibilities meant among other things being a human being first, a Spaniard and a Catholic second. “I am totally Spanish,” he said, “and it would be impossible for me to live outside my geographical boundaries. But at the same time, I hate anyone who is Spanish just because he was born a Spaniard. I am a brother to all men, and I detest the person who sacrifices himself for an abstract nationalist and religious ideal… “
He was outspoken, at times to the point of recklessness. He made many enemies among the religious and nationalist philistines of Granada, and he became a marked man. About two months before they killed him, he made a remark in a newspaper review that dramatized his ability to rise above the barriers of narrow sentimental patriotism, but which infuriated many Catholic patriots. Asked for his opinion on the fall of Moorish Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, he said provocatively: “it was a disastrous event, even though they may say the opposite in the schools. An admirable civilization, and a poetry, architecture and sensitivity unique in the world – all were lost, to give way to an impoverished, cowed city, a “miser’s paradise” where the worst middle class in Spain today is busy stirring things up.” They myth of “the great Christian victory over paganism,” so sacred to the chauvinistic Catholic, was dismissed just like that! If there was one remark that sealed Lorca’s fate, it must have been this one.

Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936)
Oh yes, I almost forgot one other reason why the poet was murdered. He was a homosexual, and we know what being a homosexual was like in a macho, rigidly patriarchal society like Lorca’s Spain. One of the thugs who shot him actually boasted that he fired “two bullets into his arse for being a queer.” As Gibson grimly comments “Such was the mentality of the Granada bourgeoisie criticized by the poet (in the newspaper interview quoted above).” And it was tragically fitting that they butchered him at a spot outside Granada not far from a famous fountain once called, by the Arabs, Ainadamar (The Fountain of Tears).

1 May 1991

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