Gypsy Ballads, by Federico Garcia Lorca
Rarely is a book more pregnant with ominous hints about an author’s destiny than this book is. Lorca, with whom I have been familiar with since high school when my Spanish teacher assigned his play “La Casa De Bernalda Alba” to our class, was certainly far more sympathetic to the gypsies than most people of his time (or ours) are, and this particular short book is full of poems, and meditations on poems, that give the sensitive reader a sense of what was lost when Lorca was put to death by the fascists at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It is precisely unclear at this point what led him to be targeted, but as a thoughtful writer with a strong interest in various sorts of inappropriate sexuality (of which plenty can be found in these pages) and with a strong degree of personal disagreement with authoritarian government or policing, it is pretty clear that he was marked as an early enemy of the regime. The fact that his family had to live in exile and that he was friends with a few people who were open supporters of Franco’s regime, some very successful, suggests that he was not an ugly partisan but rather someone with a very motley group of friends and associates, and even lovers, as the case may be.
While most of this more than 200 page book contains the ballads themselves, there is other worthwhile material here for those who are not as well versed (as I am not) with the life and career of Lorca. The book begins with acknowledgements, then moves on to an introduction to the translations, which include a fair bit of transliteration of words that are either difficult to translate or used in a multi-layered way by Lorca. After this comes a discussion about the gypsy ballads as a genre, the dedications, and the shades of green contained in them. After the poems themelseves there are notes on the poems, a lecture that the poet himself had given on them, and notes on the various contributors to the books. As far as the poems themselves are concerned, they include biblical references (Thamar and Amnón), references to deviant sexuality of some kind (Preciosa and the Air deals with the threat of rape, The Unfaithful wife with adultery, and so on), as well as meditations on death and the threat of the Spanish Civil Guard. The poems are given in a diglot fashion with Spanish on the left page and English on the right.
Overall, the poems are quite beautiful and deeply tragic. While some of the themes discussed are conventional, Lorca is a sensitive poet and has a great deal of skill that comes through both in his native Andalucian Spanish and in English translation. The author’s poetry captures a rich and complex picture of hidden and perverse longings, cultures living close to each other but with the threat of violence in order to enforce some sort of conformity, as well as the power of death and love. Lorca himself was sensitive to these matters, and while he was a good friend to a diverse group of people, his love affairs tended to end up somewhat unhappy, as is often the case with poets. These poems dwell on unhappiness, with people dying of love or being chased by unwanted amorous partners or being deceived by those they are in love with. Perhaps the author uses the title of gypsy ballads as a way of distancing these poems from his own life and his own preoccupations, but he would have been wiser to have reflected more seriously on the premonitions these books show about his own early and unfortunate fate.