Sketches of Spain.
Federico Garcia Lorca. Illustrations by Julian Bell; Translated by Peter Bush (Serif 2013, $29)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington
I’ve still got my 1960 Penguin translation of Lorca’s selected poems, with the original Spanish version taking pride of place on the page with the English translation relegated to mere footnotes. In 1971, when I bought it, I think it was “cool” to read Lorca. Now, confronted by a book of his prose musings on his home country, originally published there in 1918, I am overwhelmed by the word pictures he paints, accompanied by Julian Bell’s gentlemanly “Englishman abroad” drawings.
At Granada University, Lorca had a wonderful literature professor in 1916-17 who took his students on local art and architecture trips and to share cultural experiences. “Teacher and students gave public talks, Lorca played the piano and they conversed with local artists, intellectuals and clergy.” The students then wrote about their trips, and Lorca was only 19 years old when he published this selection of his writings.
Starting with a prologue and a meditation that today seem over-written – even “new-age hippy” – in their floweriness and soulful meanderings, the text becomes tighter and more fine-tuned as Lorca focuses on what he sees and reacts to, both past events and present moments on the historical sites he visits. If you are likely to be angered by mentions of soul and heart: “A wearied heart satiated by vices and love finds the bitter tranquility it craves…” then don’t read either the prologue or the meditation. After all, Lorca was only 19 when he wrote it. But the rest is worth a look, even if he does meander off into poetic religiosity from time to time. Remember, it is Spain.
I queued in Spain with dozens of school children on a day out, because we wanted to see the finger of a saint. And this was in 2011, not 1931 – or the middle ages. (I’ve seen a finger of Galileo’s, in Florence, too, I’m not sure why.) And the way Lorca writes about his impressions of the Spanish towns and villages he visits – Granada, Avila, Santo Domingo de Silos (famous for its Gregorian chants) – is as if he is a mixture of his present self and the ancients he refers to. He’s only at the beginning stages of finding his voice, as a poet more than a writer of desciptive prose. The poesy is already evident: “weeds hang down and kiss the stone,” with just about everything overwhelmingly his passion for the past to draw out his mellifluous words. We have a large blue shadow spreading its melancholy; willows weeping through elegant, funereal branches, people in fearful tense corners inventing tales of dead bodies and wintry ghosts…errant midwives and prostitutes who gossip wildly, terrified and full of superstition.
Colour is used a lot: everything is emerald green, turquoise, gold, silver, grey. Lorca’s droll social observations are here too: “The madrigal died with the birth of the railway.” And the more serious realisation that the tearing up of a beautiful garden is not a travesty but a necessity when he records that a mother with skeletal children who he berates for pulling up decorative plants, replies: “I can see you are well fed! If only you knew how little we earn! At least if we change this garden into an allotment, we can sell lettuces and cabbages in the city and my children will have a bit more to eat.” Maybe the future playwright was beginning to come through.
If you’ve been to Spain, this is worth a look. Looking at his poetry at the same time could help.
Lorca’s first book of verse was published in 1921, but he mainly became known for his plays and, following Spain’s becoming a republic in 1931, as artistic director of a government-sponsored theatre company. A staunch Republican, he was killed by Francoist insurgents in 1936, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Lorca’s death at 38 was a loss to both theatre and poetry.