The poet-historian


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Federico García Lorca has often been criticized for exoticizing marginalized groups, but this translation finds new depth in his handling of race.

In Poet in Spain, a new volume of translations of Federico García Lorca’s poetry by Sarah Arvio, we see a wide-ranging exhibition of Lorca’s curiosity about marginalized groups—from his fascination with 14th-century Persian poetry in The Tamarit Divan to his idealization of Andalusia’s Romani history in Gypsy Ballads. “I think that being from Granada inclines me toward a sympathetic understanding of persecuted peoples. Of gypsies, of blacks, of Jews, … of Moors, which we all carry inside,” he said in an interview in 1931.

Statements like these sometimes sit uncomfortably in the minds of contemporary readers for good reason. Lorca’s earnest interest in race as a subject can sometimes seem misguided, its simultaneous fixation on the essence, victimhood, and grandeur of other racial identities troubling. Such criticisms certainly have some truth to them. But it’s also true that Lorca’s poetry turned a sharp lens on Spain’s cultural diversity at a moment when Francisco Franco’s regime would soon push for ethnic and regional identities to be subsumed under a single idea of Spanishness. Whether revisiting Lorca’s views on race was Arvio’s main intention in composing this new volume, it’s hard to say. But her selection, deliberately or not, records the beginning, middle, and end of his poetic excavation of an alternative, multiethnic Spanish history.

In the early autumn of 1921, Lorca was an emotionless wreck. “I am neither sad nor happy,” he wrote to a friend. Having returned to Granada at the insistence of his father, his boredom stemmed from no longer being on a college campus in a major metropolis. He quickly matriculated in the local university, except his course list, which, in Madrid, had included philosophy, Spanish literature, and world history, now consisted of the healthy vegetables of a legal education: canon law, penal law, mercantile law. Lorca yearned to return to Madrid. He missed the utopian intellectual landscape of the Residencia de Estudiantes, where he had befriended fellow classmates Salvador Dalí, Luis Buñuel, and other germinating figures of Spain’s artistic scene. There, his intellectual life was his coursework. No comparable intellectual milieu existed in Granada.

Lorca’s poetry excavated an alternative, multiethnic Spanish history.

That is, until Lorca and his friends created it. By night, they frequented the taverns inside the walls of the city’s 9th-century Alhambra fortress. The taverns, like the Residencia, housed brilliant artists, but few in Spain knew their names, much less the mesmerizing style of music they played, called cante jondo (“deep song”). Typical of Spain’s southern Andalusia region, cante jondo sounds, to the untrained ear, identical to flamenco. But for Lorca, the old style of sung poetry, which, like much else in southern Spain, has strong associations with the Romani people, followed a different beat, historically and acoustically. It hadn’t given in to flamenco’s popularizing drive, preserving, instead, a fusion of Iberian cultures: Indian, Jewish, Byzantine, Islamic. Lorca was known to stretch his personal associations with cante jondo, perhaps to justify his time studying it. According to his biographers, he dubiously claimed that his great-grandmother had been part Gypsy. He fetishized the folkloric features of its songs, wringing images of wind, earth, sea, and moon for every last drop of meaning, despite the fact that many of the cante jondo songs he so idealized protested the difficult conditions of labor and hunger the Romani had endured in southern Spain.

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