Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, when he was about 30. (Associated Press )
The great poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca was already one of Spain's most popular writers when he was executed by right-wing militiamen in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. His body has never been found. The shadowy circumstances of murder, together with the posthumous publication of several more of his plays and poetry collections, have only fed the Lorca legend.
In Carlos Rojas' splendid and wildly creative novel, "The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell," the dead writer watches his last, fateful days replayed in a private theater in the underworld.
Decades have passed, and Lorca is aware of his posthumous fame, and how his death torments those who outlived him. All he wants is to sleep, finally and forever, but instead he's trapped with the memories of his life, and of all the art and literature he created.
"Here and now, in the interminable wakefulness of my own death … I perceive with dismay the close correspondence between dreams and eternity in the warp where life and death are interwoven," Lorca says. "I would also affirm … that literature is the closest key to the labyrinth where the living and the dead are commingled."
Rojas wrote and published his novel in the years when Spain was returning to democracy after the death of Francisco Franco, the dictator brought to power by that conflict. More than three decades later, "The Ingenious Gentleman" is finally available in English, thanks to the persistence of a legendary translator.
Edith Grossman first read the book not long after its publication in 1980. She was just beginning a career that would see her produce beloved translations of classics by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa and a vibrant new translation of "Don Quixote" in 2005. In Grossman's nimble hands, Rojas' novel finally comes to life for readers of English.
"The Ingenious Gentleman" is as intelligent and audacious a meditation on art, fate and mortality as anyone could hope to read. At once dark and illuminating, it often draws upon Lorca's own, real-life musings on death. Lorca comes to realize he's trapped in the symbolism of one of his own poems, "The Ballad of the Summoned One," in which a dead man's eyes remain open long after his passing.
The bullfighter who was the subject of one of Lorca's most famous poems shows up in hell too. Ignacio Sanchez Mejias was gored to death not long after he had a falling out with the poet, a scene painfully played out for Lorca as he's forced to watch, from an orchestra seat in hell.
"Each man carries hell inside him, because hell is absolute memory," Rojas writes.
Rojas won Spain's prestigious Premio Nadal for "The Ingenious Gentleman." He's a professor at Emory University, where his specialties include art history. His visual knowledge serves him well in constructing his vision of hell, a winding spiral of caverns with portals filled with images taken from, or inspired by Raphael, Velasquez, Monet and many others.
As Lorca tries to make sense of his life and death, Rojas invokes Proust, Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Byron and others. Like those writers, Lorca has achieved immortality. But in Rojas' imagination, immortality is a real and unpleasant place where an author is powerless to shape how he's read and remembered.
Woven into these existential musings is a faithful and evocative re-creation of Spain falling into the abyss of a bloody civil war. Lorca sees the real-life characters from history who arrested him and who tried to protect him. The result is a painfully human portrait of a country where people on both the right and left struggled to retain their sense of humanity and honor amid senseless violence. "If we must devour one another like wolves, I'd only hope that we don't lie to ourselves as men," says the official who holds Lorca's fate in his hand.
"The Ingenious Gentleman" is a nuanced depiction of a man and his times, much like the portrait of Lorca that emerges in the newly re-released edition of his wondrous, posthumously published poetry collection, "Poet in New York."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux's third edition of "Poet in New York" contains new photographs and letters from Lorca. The living Lorca, who arrived in New York in 1929, is a carefree and curious man given to wandering Gotham's neighborhoods, as his letters make clear.
"How are you?" he writes to his Spanish family from New York in November 1929. "I'm doing fine, thank God, in this enormous country, which seems stranger and stranger, ever more fraught with absurd and incredible things… A few days ago I had the pleasure (or the horror) of seeing the stock market collapse."
Lorca continues with a startling account of the chaos he witnessed in and around Wall Street in the hours after the crash, including a description of the body of a banker who jumped to his death from a building, "his huge floury white hands against the grey cement street."
It's an image of real death that echoes the startlingly surreal and precise images in the poems themselves. "Poet in New York" finds Lorca taking up the subject and imagery of death and murder again and again: a sailor with his throat cut in one poem, a girl drowned in a well in another.
In the end, both "Poet in New York" and "The Ingenious Gentleman" make one of the many tragic ironies of Lorca's life clear: his fearlessness in writing about death helped make him immortal.
The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell
Carlos Rojas, translated by Edith Grossman
Yale University Press: 224 pp., $24
Poet in New York
Federico García Lorca, translated by Steven F. White and Greg Simon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 320 pp., $17