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, Granada. He was generous, loquacious but also a listener, a sponge to the heat and color of the country. In Madrid in the early 1920s, a fellow student--the filmmaker Luis Bunuel who later spurned Lorca because of his homosexuality--said of the young writer, "The masterwork was himself." Pablo Neruda wrote of him that he was "magical and olive-skinned and brought happiness with him." Even the egomaniac Salvador Dali envied his multi-gifted friend. Lorca could equally have been a concert pianist. Or a painter. Today he might have made a good living as a mimic.


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noted that a shadow could descend upon him in mid-conversation; he would become what the Spanish call ensimismado, or withdrawn deep into himself This, the dark side of duende, is the main inspiration of the two forces that drive Lorca's life and his works: death and frustration.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 Spain. In Spain, they are raised...A dead person in Spain is more alive dead than anywhere else in the world."


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 Spain more rigid than anything Oscar Wilde faced, helped him become the best writer of human frustration. His own sometimes shows through his poetry in veiled references, such as to his "internal seas that are left without beaches." In Adam is seen the sadness that he, who hated relinquishing childhood, would never produce offspring of his own. This ache is echoed in his heterosexual protagonist Yerma, in the play of that name. When Yerma asks her friend Maria what it feels like to discover you are pregnant, she answers: "Have you ever held a live bird tightly in your hand?...Well, the same, but more in your blood."


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 Granada; his words are being sung, danced, recited and republished; he is remembered in the places he wrote and read: New York, Cuba, Argentina and Uruguay. Part of him has outlasted death. You could call it poetic justice--proof that knives and bullets fall away before what's forged in the fires of duende.