Friday, August 19, 2016

The death of Lorca

The great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was assassinated 80 years ago today by right wing military forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War. The circumstances of his death have always been controversial, indeed Lorca’s biographer, Ian Gibson, has written an entire book on the subject. Although Lorca himself was not a diarist, in 2012 the diary of a young male lover surfaced, shedding new light on Lorca’s last days. On a personal note, my own diary reveals not only that I met Gibson several times, but how I realised that his book on the death of Lorca had played a part in inspiring me to be a writer.

Lorca was born in 1898 near Granada, Spain, into a wealthy landowning family. He was educated at Granada and Madrid universities. While studying in Madrid, he lived within the Residencia de Estudiantes, one of Spain’s first cultural centres, where he became friends with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí among many other creative types. In 1919-1920, he wrote his first play, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, which was not well received, and, in 1921, published his first book of poems. Collaborations with the composer Manuel de Falla and more poems followed before Lorca’s second play, Mariana Pineda, with sets designed by Dalí, opened in Barcelona in 1927, to great acclaim.

In 1929-1930, Lorca travelled to New York, where he studied English and continued writing poetry; he also visited Vermont and Cuba. Back in Madrid, the newly established Second Spanish Republic appointed him director of a student theatre company, Teatro Universitario La Barraca, charged with bringing theatre to rural areas of Spain. During the next few years he wrote his most famous plays, Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. But, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, he was assassinated, on 19 August, by fascist supporters of General Franco - the leader who, in 1939, would win the war and rule Spain for more than 30 years. The circumstances of Lorca’s death have long been controversial, and his body was never found. Biographers continue to argue about whether it was Lorca’s left-wing political beliefs (though he had friends in both factions of the emerging civil war) or personal animosities to his homosexuality that was most to blame for his death warrant.

In the 1960s, the Irish-born Ian Gibson, a Spanish literature academic working in Britain, moved to Granada for a year to write a doctoral thesis on Lorca, but ended up publishing (in Paris) a Spanish-language book about the playwright’s death - La represión nacionalista de Granada en 1936 y la muerte de Federico García Lorca (1971). It was banned in Spain; and subsequently it was also published in English as The Death of Lorca (1973). Gibson concluded that Lorca was, indeed, shot by nationalist militia, along with others, as part of a wider campaign to eliminate left-wing radicals. Gibson, by this time domiciled near Granada, went on to publish his major, and very highly respected, two-volume Spanish biography of Lorca in 1985-1987, and then two years later, a one volume edition in English.

In 2015, the Guardian claimed that documents it had obtained (written in 1965 at the Granada police headquarters) contained ‘the first ever admission by Franco-era officials’ of their involvement in Lorca’s death. The article goes on: ‘The resulting documents suggest García Lorca was persecuted for his beliefs, describing him as a “socialist and a freemason,” about whom rumours swirled of “homosexual and abnormal practices”. After police carried out two searches on his home in Granada, he fled to a friend’s house out of fear. In August 1936, just one month after the civil war broke out, officers surrounded the house where García Lorca was hiding, while his friends tried to intervene on his behalf. García Lorca was arrested and taken by car to an area close to the place known as Fuente Grande, along with one other detainee, said the documents. He was then “executed immediately after having confessed, and was buried in that location, in a very shallow grave, in a ravine”. No details were given as to the content of his confession.’ Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, or

There is no evidence that Lorca was a diarist (see A Companion to Federico García Lorca by Federico Bonaddio, 2007, Tamesis). However, in 2012, the 91 year old Juan Ramirez de Lucas, who had been Lorca’s last lover, died leaving behind a box of mementoes including letters and a diary - instructing his family to make them public. As was widely reported at the time (see El País for example), the letters (from Lorca) and de Lucas’s diary prove that Lorca, 38 years old, and de Lucas, only 19, had been planning in the summer of 1936 to flee to Mexico. Lorca, though, insisted that de Lucas seek permission from his family - permission that was not forthcoming, his father refusing to issue the necessary papers. Had the lovers left Spain at that moment in time, Lorca would not have died so young, and who knows what literary works he might have produced.

The Telegraph, for its take on the de Lucas story, contacted Gibson, who said: ‘It’s terribly exciting to learn new material exists that may shed light on his final days’, and ‘Lorca was very promiscuous and prone to infatuation but we never definitively knew who his last lover was or why he delayed leaving.’ Gibson revealed de Lucas’s name had come up during his own research on Lorca (which had begun while Franco was still in power), but that he had refused to be interviewed. ‘One can only guess that he wanted to keep his association a secret especially during the Franco years. It wasn’t easy being gay and especially if it was a relationship with someone as famous as Lorca.’ The Telegraph article concluded with another quote from Gibson: ‘We can only hope that the papers will be made available soon.’

Unfortunately, since 2012 there has been no sign that the letters/diary might be published, as was suggested at the time. In 2014, the British theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh, when writing a play on the death of Lorca, inspired by the de Lucas find, tried to find out what had happened to his papers, but was stonewalled at every turn. The play - The Unquiet Grave of Garcia Lorca - premiered in London in October 2014 - see The Evening Standard.

On a personal note, I met Ian Gibson several times at his home in Restabal, near Granada. My friend Rosy, and her husband Andy, had bought a holiday villa in the area, but it was only after being there for a while that Rosy discovered a cousin, whom she had not previously met, living nearby - Ian Gibson - and they soon became firm friends. One winter, I visited Rosy, with my seven-year old son, Adam, and she took us to Ian’s place. It was not until I was in his house, and browsing his bookshelves that I realised Ian had played a part, some 20 years earlier, in inspiring me to become a writer. Here is my diary entry:

15 January 1995
‘Ian proved a hearty fellow and quite charming. He loved Adam and the way he’d fallen asleep in his house without disturbing anyone, and he seemed on good form the thrice I saw him - on this evening, later in the week at a party, and then on New Year’s Eve at his party. But I must recount why my meeting with him was so significant.

In the mid-1970s, after my travels and when I was living in London with Harold, I think, I saw a modern ballet at Sadlers Wells, created by Lindsay Kemp and performed by Ballet Rambert. I can remember parts of the ballet to this day. It was called Cruel Garden and it so inspired me in some way that I wrote my first ever piece of fiction (apart from the shorts in my travel diaries) and I called it Cruel Garden, although it had nothing to do with the ballet or its subject (at least I don’t think it did). The point is that the ballet Cruel Garden was based on the life of Lorca and, in part, on Ian’s book The Death of Lorca. I did not even realise I had read the book until I started delving into my memories surrounding The Cruel Garden.’

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