Chasing the Spirit of a Fractured Spain Through García Lorca
By DOREEN CARVAJAL OCT. 24, 2017
It takes about five miles along a red dirt road in the semidesert of Andalusia to reach the 18th-century ruins of the Cortijo del Fraile. Alone in the scorching sun and dry winds, the decaying Dominican farmhouse and chapel seems to stand through some sheer force of its literary fame.
It holds together with stones and mortar — a neglected national treasure that was the real-life setting for a classic tragedy of betrayal and murder in Spain’s southernmost region.
The arid lands and immense nights inspired the early 20th-century Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca to write his greatest drama, “Blood Wedding,” based on the crime story in 1928 of a runaway bride who fled her arranged marriage on horseback to be with her true love. He was killed by her relatives, and she died decades later as an elderly recluse, buried in 1987 in a secret tomb.
If only the poet could write this last act of forgetting. García Lorca drew deeply on the landscapes of his native Andalusia and found inspiration in its history, colors and rural simplicity — crushed grass, the splash of fountains, the smell of the Sierra Nevada and the whitewashed caves carved into homes in the russet hills of the region.
“I feel linked to it in all my emotions,” García Lorca remarked in a 1934 interview in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the publication Crítica, describing this passion as his “agrarian complex.” “My earliest boyhood memories taste of earth.”
To search for García Lorca’s Andalusia is to chase fragments of poetry and loss. He was silenced more than 81 years ago at 38 — murdered in the summer of 1936 by a paramilitary death squad at the outset of the Spanish Civil War for his anti-fascist sentiments and homosexuality. His burial site in an anonymous mass grave somewhere in fields outside Granada remains a mystery.
But his powerful voice is still one that binds this nation as it struggles with tensions between the Catalan independence movement and the Spanish state, which threatened to remove the region’s separatist government and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.
In August, the poet’s verses offered a measure of comfort after the deadly van attack along the Ramblas, the heart of Barcelona. Over booming loudspeakers, thousands of antiterrorism protesters listened to a recital of García Lorca’s tribute to his favorite thoroughfare: “The street where all four seasons live together. The only street I wish would never end.”
When he was 18, he set off from Granada in 1917 on the first of four expeditions by steam train with his art history professor and other students to tour Andalusia. It was then, he said, that “I became fully aware of myself as a Spaniard.” He was seeking memories of “the ancient souls who once walked the solitary squares we now tread.”
My love of García Lorca extends to all his writing that explores the rural tragedies of women in Andalusia and an earthy culture where death and love are deeply intertwined. I had never expected to visit his house in Granada, where the poet wrote his trilogy of greatest plays — “Blood Wedding,” “Yerma,” and “The House of Bernarda Alba.”
But a reporting assignment took me to the city one day, and I met his niece, Laura García Lorca, in his family home, Huerta de San Vicente, now a museum and whitewashed sanctuary, which is surrounded by linden trees and roses.
The downstairs living room was dark and smelled faintly of jasmine. It was furnished with black and white photos from many decades ago, along with García Lorca’s baby grand piano and a pensive portrait of the writer, with dark wavy hair and sharp eyes, wearing a mustard robe.
His niece led me upstairs to his bedroom and study, furnished with a single bed and an oak desk stained with ink. And there we paused, the memories in this silent house so profound that her tears still flow. “The story is very present,” she said. “We share this as our loss.”
It was soon after that I decided to chase the spirit of this fractured nation through García Lorca’s literary inspirations in southern Spain. I began my first journey with a 10-day road trip with my husband, Omer, through Andalusia in a rented Fiat, hurtling on a smooth stretch of highway through golden hills and olive groves and white villages and ancient Arab fortresses.
We toured Granada, the poet’s hometown, where liberal and conservative political divisions still simmer in a lingering fight over control of García Lorca’s vast archives. In the meantime, the literary treasure has not yet moved from Madrid to a soaring new cultural center built to house it. But public authorities and the writer’s family are close to settling their differences and the archives are expected to arrive within months at the center by the tranquil Plaza de Romanillo.
Before his death, García Lorca alienated the local society by complaining that Granada was inhabited by a cold, introverted ruling class. Yet, despite the mutual loathing, he held court here in the 1920s with his young literary circle of intellectuals, “El Rinconcillo.” At a restaurant known then as Cafe Alameda, he would read his works aloud from the same corner table.
Today his refuge is named Chikito, and the restaurant’s cuisine is typically Andalusian with a popular tapa of tiny snails with ham and almond sauce and its specialty, an oxtail stew. In 2015, the writer’s favorite corner was transformed into a shrine with a life-size bronze statue of García Lorca seated at a vintage marble table in a dapper bow tie.
The most touching tribute, though, is spontaneous — an annual midnight-to-dawn flamenco tribute every Aug. 19 on the anniversary of García Lorca’s death that is an open secret among performers and locals.
It takes place in the hills northeast of Granada in El Barranco de Viznar but it received little public attention on the 80th anniversary of his death a year ago near the likely mass graves.
In the balmy darkness, trembling voices rose from the forest to the sound of cante jondo or deep song — music that inspired the poetry of García Lorca, who was a musician himself. He likened its rhythms and wavering stammers to the trilling of birds and the music of forest and fountain. And he believed it had to be preserved because it represented the ancient music of the persecuted and oppressed of Andalusia — Arabs, Jews and Gypsies — who fled into the mountains in the 15th century to escape the Spanish Inquisition.
For the writer, other cities like Seville offered more openness and tolerance — something he considered a reflection of physical geography and the Guadalquivir River that flows within the city and outward to the Atlantic Ocean, shooting through, he wrote in a poem, like “a constant arrow.”
We traveled to Seville, where we sampled a boat trip along the olive-colored Guadalquivir for about a $20 ticket. But the hourlong ride seemed more languid than García Lorca’s dynamic description and the riverside more neglected. The highlights on the trip centered on passing under bridges, the oldest Triana or Isabel II rebuilt by engineers for Gustave Eiffel.
Instead we found more of the city’s essential soul or spirit of “duende” in the sprawling San Fernando municipal cemetery. At its entrance is an exotic neighborhood of tombs and shrines devoted to the city’s Andalusian aristocracy — flamenco stars and fallen bullfighters such as Francisco Rivera Pérez “Paquirri,” who is sculpted in a matador’s suit and poised to guide a bull’s final attack.
It was in Seville that García Lorca befriended Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, a bullfighter who was also a poet and a playwright. After Ignacio was gored in a post-retirement bullfight in 1934, García Lorca wrote his classic elegy in tribute to him, a 1935 poem of disbelief and grief about his death at 43.
There is no more affecting place to read aloud his lament — “Oh white wall of Spain! Oh black bull of sorrow! Oh hard blood of Ignacio!” — than beside the matador’s simple grave. It lies in the shadow of an enormous tomb for his fellow bullfighter and brother-in-law, Joselito, who was killed in 1920 by a bull named Bailaor. That marble and bronze sculpture depicts Joselito in his draped coffin, shouldered by 18 distraught men and women. One of the figures is Ignacio, head cast to beseech the cloudless skies.
Death, honor and frustration are themes that endlessly fascinated García Lorca. In 1933, he staged the premier of “Blood Wedding” in Madrid, drawing on 1928 newspaper accounts of a defiant bride, Francisca Cañadas, who abandoned her fiancé — her sister’s brother-in-law — to flee hours before a pending marriage deep into the countryside with her beloved first cousin.
Her sister and her husband tracked them down, fatally shooting the cousin and strangling Francisca, leaving her for dead on the road to Nijar. The bride survived, living for decades with the enmity of her village who blamed her for provoking the tragedy.
In his drama, García Lorca transformed the key characters and heightened the bloodshed. He conceived of the set inside a spacious cave like the ancient enclaves in Purullena and Guadix, southern towns in the province of Granada known for mazes of whitewashed caves fashioned into homes and with inhabitants called trogloditas. He was struck by the rare accommodation of life and earth in the labyrinth of cave dwellings — some that date back to the 16th century.
We had stayed a few years earlier in a rented cave in Purullena, which is also known for its cobalt blue ceramics made with a special polychrome technique that dates to the 16th century. The cave was a cool refuge on hot August nights and so profoundly silent that sleep transformed to nights of intensely vivid dreams. On this trip, we returned again to explore the caves in Guadix and Purullena, some thoroughly modern with wrought iron guard gates, chimneys, marble floors, Wi-Fi access and television antennas poking out of the oatmeal colored hills. Others were gothic ruins from past centuries, poetry in white against the blue splendor of skies.
On a back road in a cave neighborhood in Purullena, a silver haired woman in a black coat and cane noticed us photographing the homes. She beckoned us inside her cave with a red tiled awning and arched door.
Her kindness reminded me of another basic element of Andalusia that García Lorca cherished — its people. On the same day that she spoke to us, we stopped nearby in Graena, a small town that is home to spring-fed thermal baths and an outdoor barbecue restaurant, Bar La Pradera, which specializes in lamb chops and steak grilled on hot coals. We had not dined there in five years, and tourists rarely stop there, at the terrace across from an open-air municipal pool and garden. But the owners welcomed us back with kisses and then they invited us to their home.
No journey like this could be complete without witnessing the last act of “Blood Wedding.” We rumbled along a dirt road to reach the Cortijo del Fraile, the crumbling farmhouse where Francisca Cañadas lived with her father who owned the property then. Today, it is a surreal landmark of ruin and romance in Europe’s only semidesert, the Cabo de Gata Nature Preserve in Almería, Spain’s southeastern corner.
The fragile farmhouse is surrounded by a wire fence to prevent entry of tourists. Its facade has been minimally restored but there is much more work to be done. A plain marker took note of its literary pedigree — and also its star turn as a backdrop in various movies, among them, Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
From the ruins, we headed toward the town of Nijar and stopped at one of its oldest municipal cemeteries. Its white walls were full with rose and blue silk flowers and tribute plaques to the village’s dead, including members of the star-crossed Cañadas family.
Every time I visit Andalusia, I try to find some trace of the grave of the runaway bride. She never married and was essentially buried in life by the scorn of her village. And every year nothing changes in the essential rural tragedy imagined by García Lorca.
A lone cemetery worker offered me a vague hint that Francisca Cañadas’s tomb is placed near a soaring cypress tree, a symbol of mourning and hope. But a stone plaque was nowhere to be found. According to the family’s wishes, the worker said, it is marked with a false name.