El Duende – The Long Life of Lorca
By Rod Usher
The most elusive word in the Spanish language is duende. Like a breeze or moonlight, it is more easily experienced than explained. In stories, it means simply an imp or goblin, or a poltergeist-like force that disturbs the spirit of a house. But it runs much deeper than that; duende is almost a blood-type. Someone who has it in their veins is likely to be creative, fey, prescient, spontaneous, captivating, maybe melancholic, volatile. Or none of these. One of duende's charms is that just when it seems grasped, it slips away like a trout; makes a chord change; turns quick as a small child from laughter to tears. But if you had to pin just one name to this bewitching faculty, the name would be Federico Garcia Lorca.
Born 100 years ago this month, Lorca's life is now being recalled wherever he is read--which is just about everywhere. Duende ran deep in his DNA, and it flows into his writing in a way that has made him the most-translated poet in his language. While his context is Andalucia's hot plains, his content can tug the same emotions in Afrikaans or Japanese or English.
The shiny side of duende was
obvious to all in young Federico, son of a well-to-do farmer and a
schoolteacher near the city synonymous with his name,
One of Federico's party tricks was to slump to the floor feigning death. He did it so convincingly, however, that it spooked people. His friends also noted that a shadow could descend upon him in mid-conversation; he would become what the Spanish call ensimismado, or withdrawn deep into himself This, the dark side of duende, is the main inspiration of the two forces that drive Lorca's life and his works: death and frustration.
At a conference (on the subject of duende)
Lorca once explained the heavy freight death carries for his people: "In
all countries death is an end. It comes, and the curtains are closed. Not in
Death, and the way pride, lust and love ride heedlessly in its thrall, is distilled in Lorca's Blood Wedding, a play based on real events in which overwhelming passion crashes against the stone walls of propriety and "honor." Meaning steel must flash in brittle sunlight, find darkness within flesh. No wonder the mother in the play says: "Knives, knives...Cursed be all knives and the scoundrel who invented them."
Lorca's pain at having to suppress his sexuality in a
That few men have written women so well is confirmed by Lorca's other tragedy of frustration, The House of Bernarda Alba, an all-female play he described as "a photographic document" of the villages of Spain. It is more black than white.
In the first part of his best-known poem, Lorca repeats no fewer than 30 times, until it becomes a hammerblow, that death came to the bullfighter Ignacio Sanchez Mejias a las cinco de la tarde, on the stroke of 5 p.m. With his own, the moment is not clear, not even whether it was Aug. 18 or 19 of 1936. Being of the left and/or because of his homosexuality, he was executed by members of the raging right early in the Civil War. He was 38. One of the falangists in the firing squad later boasted that first he shot Lorca twice in the backside, for being maricon.
That barbarian is now unlamented dust. But 100 years after
the birth of Lorca a helicopter dropped 100,000 copies of his poems on