In Search of Lorca

In 1949, Gerald Brenan returned to Spain for the first time since the Spanish Civil War. Determined to see what had become of the country he loved, on his travels in Andalusia he searched for the grave of his friend, the great poet and playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca. Below is an extract from Brenan’s The Face of Spain that finds Brenan searching for Lorca’s grave in the El Albayzín district of Granada…

Yes, this was the Albaicín as it used to be – yet why did it seem
so changed, so different? As I sat listening to the cock-crows, the
answer came to me. This was a city that had killed its poet. And all
at once the idea entered my mind that I would visit, if I could find
it, García Lorca’s grave and lay a wreath of flowers upon it.
Next morning we set out to climb the hill of the Alhambra. The
sun was shining and a dry wind raised the dust in eddies. As we
passed the English pensión, the intense pale blue of the sky, seen
against the brown tops of the elm wood, gave me a thrill of excitement.
This blue of Granada skies is to other blues what the colour
of fresh blood is to other reds, and if one calls Spain, as well one
may, the country of bloodshed, its pure sky blue, like that of the
Virgin’s dress in a Fra Angelico picture, seems to be pitying that
bloodshed.

We took the road that runs past the cypress avenue of the
Generalife. Up this road, morning after morning, the lorries packed
with prisoners had passed. The foreign visitors in the Washington
Irving Hotel had listened to them changing gear and pulled the
blankets over their heads when the shots rang out. After that the
nightingales, noisy as frogs, had resumed their chug-chugging.

Crowning the hill in front of us stood the high white walls of the
cemetery, where for generations all the hijos de Granada have been
buried. As we came up to it we could see that a new enclosure,
several acres in extent, had been added. We entered and began to
wander among the graves. Soon, in the newest and poorest part,
where the sun glared down and the wind blew the loose earth into
eddies, we came on a man driving a small donkey.

‘We are looking for a grave,’ I began, and explained the
circumstances.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘you will have to inquire at the office. The
names of all those who were shot at the cemetery are recorded
there.’

‘Really?’ I exclaimed, for I was surprised that they had taken
the trouble to do this.

‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘Those who were shot here were shot by order
of the military authorities and so all the formalities were observed.
By every grave a label was put up with the name of its owner upon
it and when three or four were buried together in the same grave,
well, three or four names were written down.’

‘Were you here then?’

‘Not me. I spent the war fighting on the Red side. When it
finished and I’d done my term in the labour camps, I got this
job.’

Leaving his donkey, which was carrying a pannier of earth, he
accompanied us back to the office. There a little old man, shabby
and frail, came scraping up to us. On his nose, which was very thin,
he wore a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles and on his head an official
peaked cap which was too large for him. He listened to my
inquiries with an air of reserve and obsequiousness, but the whole cast of his face expressed fear and sadness. At any moment, it
seemed, these might descend in a landslide and bury him.

Whom did I say I was looking for? Federico García Lorca? Ah
yes, he remembered the name, for we were not the first persons to
have inquired about him. Only last year some foreigners –
Argentines, he thought – had driven up to the gate with a wreath
of flowers. But he had been unable to satisfy them. Señor García
Lorca’s remains had been dug up after the regulation five years in
the earth because no one had paid the requisite fee for their
removal to a permanent resting place. They were now in the bone
pit.

‘Could we see it?’

‘Certainly. There is no objection.’

And he handed to the man who accompanied us a large key.
Then, with the same sad, deferential manner with which he had
addressed us, he turned to bow to a funeral party which had just
arrived.

Jangling the key and talking breezily of the secrets of his trade –
how long, for example, it took corpses to decay in the local earth –
the gravedigger led the way across the dusty, sun-drenched hillside,
pitted with humble graves. Then he stopped before a small
enclosure surrounded by a high wall.

‘Here we are,’ he said, unlocking a door. ‘This is the ossuary.’

A curious sweetish smell met us as we entered and a disagreeable,
uneasy feeling of isolation and silence. Like the silence at a
dinner party when someone has committed a grave faux pas.
Pulling ourselves together, we saw that we were in a sort of open
court scattered with torn and blackened fragments of clothing. It
was as though a rag fair had been held here a dozen years ago or a
collection of gypsy caravans made it their camping ground. But,
quickly, our eyes were drawn from these sordid remains to a pit
which lay in the centre of the enclosure. It was some thirty feet
square, to all appearance deep, and filled to within half a dozen feet
of the surface with skulls and bones. Among these lay a few
parched and shrunken bodies, lying in distraught postures as though they had come flying down through the air, and wrapped in mouldering cerements.

‘Here you have what was once the flower of Granada,’ said the
man. ‘Look well and you’ll see the bullet holes.’

And in fact nearly every skull was shattered.

But what was that? Stretched across the rubble of bones, in an
attitude of rigid attention, was a complete and well-preserved
corpse, dressed in a green and black braided uniform. Its face, a
little greenish too with dark markings, as though the flesh were
trying to take on the colour of the uniform, had the severe, self-concentrated look of a man who is engaged on some important task.

‘Ah, that one!’ exclaimed the gravedigger. ‘He’s a fine bird. A
colonel, if you please, of the Civil Guard. He’s been lying for fifty
years or so in one of the upper niches and that’s why he’s so well
mummified. Even his complexion is as fresh as though he had just
been laid out. We took him up the other day because his family
have stopped paying the rent, and here he is.’

A colonel of the police guarding the bones of the Reds whom
his successors had shot! Could Goya have thought of a better
subject?

‘And how many would you say are buried in this pit?’ I asked.

‘Well, the list of those officially shot shows some eight
thousand names. All but a few of them are here. Then there’s a
thousand or so more who had the originality to die natural deaths.
Vamos, say nine or ten thousand. And all good friends, good
company.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘Well, why not? They’re all there together.’

He laughed as he locked the door and, passing once more the
donkey, still patiently waiting with its load of soil, we went back to
the cemetery entrance.

‘Can you point out to me,’ I asked, ‘where the executions took
place?’

‘I’ll take you there,’ he said, pocketing my tip. ‘Then you won’t lose yourselves.’

‘But what if that gets you into trouble?’

‘No, why should it? They were officially shot, weren’t they? By
order of the military authorities. Puñeta, a great act of justice!’

And he led us out through the iron gates to the wall that
bounds the lower side of the cemetery. The bullet marks were still
there, and a few dried stains of blood. They had been bundled out
of the lorries and machine-gunned in groups with the rope manacles
still on them. Only the city councillors had been granted the
privilege of lighting cigarettes and so showing the traditional
contempt and defiance. There they had stood, looking at a red
ploughed field planted with olive trees and sloping up to the gradually
brightening sky. After that – nothing.

We set off back to the town. Just beyond the Washington Irving
Hotel, at the entrance to the wooded region of the Alhambra, lies
the drive to the Carmen de los Mártires. Here St John of the Cross
had written his mystical works and M. Meersmans, a Belgian mine
owner and prospector, had entertained his friends with bad dinners
served on gold plate. A new, monstrous building had now shoved
itself up, inscribed with the initials of the FET de la Jons, otherwise
known as the Falange. Painted on the wall beside it was their
symbol, a hand clutching a dagger dyed in red.

The more I thought over the results of this expedition, the less
satisfied I was with them. The old man at the office had been
elusive. The gravedigger’s emphasis on official executions seemed
to suggest that there had been others which could not be so classified.
I decided to return to the cemetery that afternoon and to
demand to see the list of those executed. If Lorca was really buried
there, surely his name would be on it?

At four o’clock therefore we were back again. This time we
made our way into that part of the cemetery where the middle
classes are buried, either in niches round the patio walls or in more
expensive marble tombs under the cypress trees. Here we started a
conversation with two gravediggers, one of whom, the older and
more talkative, had been present when the military rising began, and asked them to show us where those executed in 1936 had been reburied.

‘You’ve come straight to the spot,’ replied the elder. ‘The most
celebrated ones are all here.’

And he led us to the grave of Montesinos, the Socialist mayor
who had been Lorca’s brother-in-law, and then to those of the city
councillors and their officials, all of whom, with two exceptions,
had been put to death. Next came the graves of various doctors,
including that of a famous specialist in children’s diseases. I knew
his story: a much-loved man, he had been shot, not on political
grounds, but as a freemason. Every group that supported the rising
had had the right to proscribe its particular enemies and the
Church – or, to be more exact, Catholic Action – had put on its list
the masons and the Protestants.

Our guides, who took a professional interest in showing us the
sights, now led us to a different part of the cemetery, where, among
other things, we saw the corner where the postmen were interred:
they had been shot, it appeared, because their jobs were wanted by
other people. After this came what was evidently regarded as the
highlight. In the civil section, where non-Catholics and prisoners
who refused confession were buried, stood the tomb of the
Protestant pastor, whose crime was that he had kept a free school
for poor children in the Cuesta Gomérez. Poor man, he had been
well liked by the foreign residents, including those who were
Catholics, but even a British consul’s friendship could not save
him.

I observed that these tombstones all had the sane formula for
the epitaph, saying ceased to exist instead of died and at the end Your
mother (sister, daughters) will not forget you. It would no doubt have
been unwise to mention the unforgetfulness of brothers, sons or
fathers.

‘All this is very interesting,’ I said at length, ‘but the person I
am looking for is not here. Perhaps you can tell me where he is
buried. He is called Federico García Lorca.’

‘That is a famous name,’ said the elder of the gravediggers.

‘There is much talk about him.’

‘He is famous all the world over,’ I replied. ‘His poems are read
from Buenos Aires to New York and London. Some of them have
been translated into English.’

‘There you are,’ exclaimed the gravedigger to his companion.
‘These foreigners know more about us than we know about
ourselves. I tell you, there’s as much knowledge in one of their
little fingers as there is in the whole of our bodies. Compared to
them, we’re nothing.’

‘That’s it,’ agreed his friend solemnly. ‘Just savages.’

‘You don’t understand me,’ I said. ‘This man whose grave I am
looking for was a friend of mine. When many years ago I lived in
Granada, I used to know him.’

‘Ah, that makes a difference. Still I must tell you that you’ve
come to the wrong place. He is not here.’

‘I have been told that he was. Anyhow I want to see the lists.’

‘They are at the office. But I warn you that his name is not on
them. I have been through them all many times.’

‘What are they like?’

‘Well, there is just a list of names with a number after each.

When the name was not known, as often happened, there was
written varón or hembra, “man” or “woman”.’

‘Perhaps he was one of those unknowns.’

‘No, he was not. I tell you he is buried somewhere else . . . At
Víznar.’

‘Víznar?’

‘Yes, in the trenches in the barranco. They shot him there.’

‘How do you know?’

‘How is anything known? These things come out.’ And he
refused to say any more about it.

In the office I found the old caretaker alone, entering something
with a scratchy pen in a ledger. I told him that I was not satisfied
that García Lorca’s remains were in the bone pit and asked to see
the books in which the names of those shot had been recorded.
‘I cannot show them without permission,’ he said, glancing up

His eyes met mine for a moment in an uncertain glance. Then
without a word he gave a slight inclination with that perpetually
deferential body of his and turned away.

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