Sketches of Spain
Federico Garcia Lorca
224 pages • Serif • 31 May, 2012 [PB]
When the great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was seventeen, he travelled around his homeland with fellow students and his beloved, inspirational teacher, Don Fernando de los Rios. The writing he produced during his travels was published as Impresiones y Paisajes (Impressions and Landscapes) when Lorca was just nineteen years old. The independent publisher, Serif, have translated and released, for the first time in the UK, Lorca’s youthful work as Sketches of Spain. The book has been translated by the award-winning Peter Bush and is illustrated throughout by drawings from the artist Julian Bell. Both the terms ‘sketches’ and ‘impressions,’ capture absolutely the style and form of the book. Its significance lies in the way that it’s possible to see and, most importantly in the case of Lorca, hear him finding his extraordinary voice.
In the short Prologue Lorca feels his way into some of the guiding principles that stayed with him and developed throughout his writing. He tells us, his “Friend and reader”, that we will “recognise a rather vague melancholy” in the book, and he’s not wrong. He’s searching, as he would do all his too brief life, for the poetic, the spiritual, the beautiful, the fantastic, to become past, present and future. “In order to interpret”, he says, “we must always pour our souls over things, see the spiritual where it doesn’t exist, and endow forms with the magical frisson we feel. We must catch a glimpse of the ancient souls who once walked the solitary squares we now tread; it is essential to be one and a thousand, to experience things in their myriad shades.”
As in his poems, he switches from the meditative to the questioning, to the declamatory, sometimes in the same paragraph – as if observing the landscape or a town, searching for meaning in it, and then crying out into the air. He sometimes addresses cities, buildings and landscapes directly, as “you”, clearly feeling deeply connected to all of them, whilst at the same time troubled by them, or sustained by them, or both.
In all of Lorca’s work landscape is rendered deeply symbolic, laden with meaning beyond the purely physical. The writing here is often highly imagistic, almost stream-of-consciousness at times. You get a real sense of place but always filtered through the nascent poet’s brooding imagination:
The sky began to compose its symphony in the lower key of twilight. The orangey sky opened out its royal robes.
Shoots of melancholy sprang from the distant pines, opening hearts to the infinite music of the Angelus…
The golden earth is blinding. Far-off places dream of nightfall.
This really could be from one of his poems. At another point Lorca writes, “You could say every single object has a sound… that light, colour and shape make sounds.” This is a poet’s unique way of engaging with the world – a mixture of synesthesia and sensitivity that Lorca deploys in ways that are brilliantly evocative:
An irremediable, sorrowing grief spills over the houses in the Albaicín and the proud red-green slopes of the Alhambra and Generalife … the colour changes continuously and, with the colour, the sound. Pink, red, yellow sounds, impossible sounds of colour and sound. Followed by a great blue harmony … the night-time symphony of bells strikes up … Almost all ring languidly, summoning us to the rosary … The river erupts into song. Light flicker in the Albaicín’s narrow streets, making the black cypresses shiver in gold … The Watch Tower begins its historic chant … Tiny, timorous lights shine on bell-ringers in their chambers …
A train whistles in the distance.
Lorca’s particular vision does mean that, sometimes, the prose becomes weighted down with imagery, but the remedy to that (if you need one) is to read these sketches as they are written – bit-by-bit – rather than as a continuous narrative of a journey. These are impressions you can dip in and out of.
As well as communing with the landscape and towns, Lorca is most concerned with religion. In the guise of monasteries, convents and churches, this often feels as if it has been imposed on the land and the people who dwell there. Lorca can sometimes see the beauty of these structures, but more often than not he feels them as deeply oppressive, as distinct and distant from the spiritual or the Christian in its ‘pure’ sense. When visiting an enclosed order of monks in La Cartuja, Lorca describes how disconnected he feels this form of religion is from people and the world, and he’s too much of a sensualist to ever approve of such a life:
These Carthusians are great cowards. They isolate themselves because they long to live near God … I wonder which God these Carthusians are seeking. It cannot be Jesus … No, no … If these men made unhappy by life’s hard knocks were inspired by Christ’s teaching, they would take to the path of charity, not of empty, selfish, ice-cold penitence. Nothing is gained through prayer, just as nothing is gained through mortification. In our prayers we ask for what can never be granted. We see or would like to see a distant star, but it erases what is external, what is all around. The only path is charity, love for one’s neighbour.
Lorca’s sexuality is not explored at all in Sketches in Spain, but that’s not surprising. It was a couple of years yet before that same beloved teacher, Don Fernando, would recommend to Lorca’s parents that he be sent to a progressive university in Madrid. There he would meet and befriend other great Spanish artists such as Dali, Bunuel and Da Falla, and have the confidence and freedom to begin love affairs with other men, though he was rarely happy in his sexuality. What you can see is Lorca observing young men and women meeting each other, but he remains at a distance. He is also emotionally distanced – as if to guard himself – from what he sees on his travels, while demonstrating an awareness of the sensual nature of the interactions that occur in the town squares and bars, rather than in those that take place at church. Lorca’s adolescent yearnings are sometimes over the top, but if you can’t be like that at seventeen, when can you? Peter Bush’s translation is brilliantly fluid and inhabits Lorca’s poetic spirit beautifully. Julian Bell’s drawings have something of the same impressionistic, hazy, tentative quality as the prose, and make the perfect travel companion.
Looking at tombs in the mountain town of Burgos, Lorca meditates on artistic endeavour, human vanity and time, “the slayer of all vanity”. Contemplating the empty tombs leads him to meditate on how human vanity has “been so punished and mocked by centuries of leveling” and how “ all this must come to an end because the world and eternity are also but an infinite dream”. His own murder by Nationalist gunmen during the Spanish Civil War at the age of 38 makes any reading of Lorca’s thoughts on death resonate with totemic force. His own body, never found or identified, has become part of the Spanish earth that he loved.
In the Prologue to Sketches of Spain, Lorca writes, “See everything, feel everything. In eternity we will be rewarded for never abiding by set horizons. Love and charity towards everyone, respect for everyone, will lead us into the kingdom of the ideal. We must dream. Wretched the man who doesn’t, because he shall never see the light.” Thankfully, for us, Lorca did.