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In Carlos Rojas’s imaginative novel, the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, murdered by Francoist rebels in August 1936, finds himself in an inferno that somehow resembles Breughel’s Tower of Babel. He sits alone in a small theater in this private hell, viewing scenes from his own life performed over and over and over. Unexpectedly, two doppelgängers appear, one a middle-aged Lorca, the other an irascible octogenarian self, and the poet faces a nightmarish confusion of ...
In Carlos Rojas’s imaginative novel, the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, murdered by Francoist rebels in August 1936, finds himself in an inferno that somehow resembles Breughel’s Tower of Babel. He sits alone in a small theater in this private hell, viewing scenes from his own life performed over and over and over. Unexpectedly, two doppelgängers appear, one a middle-aged Lorca, the other an irascible octogenarian self, and the poet faces a nightmarish confusion of alternative identities and destinies.
Carlos Rojas uses a fantastic premise—García Lorca in hell—to reexamine the poet’s life and speculate on alternatives to his tragic end. Rojas creates with a surrealist’s eye and a moral philosopher’s mind. He conjures a profoundly original world, and in so doing earns a place among such international peers as Gabriel García Márquez, Philip Roth, J. M. Coetzee, and José Saramago.
I thought the dead were blind, like the ghost of that Gypsy girl in one of my poems, who peered into the cistern in the garden and didn't see things when they were looking at her.
I was wrong. For the dead everything is unanimous presence at a perpetually unreachable distance. All you lived, all you thought, any chimera fantasized on earth becomes at once possible and inaccessible in hell. It's enough to evoke an event or a dream for it to be immediately represented, with perfect precision, in this almost darkened theater where I suffer alone, perhaps for eternity.
Imagine a solitude that is perhaps interminable in a large orchestra section I share with no one. Through two transoms on the tapestry-covered walls comes a very cold light, between amber and alabaster. It barely outlines the backs of the empty seats, covered in turn in ash-colored velvet. With time and in this almost total gloom, I grew accustomed to making out the stage with its long arch and deep proscenium. There the front curtain and backdrop are always raised or perhaps do not exist. On the boards—real boards—the absent becomes present when my desire conjures up mirages of memories, readings, or reveries. If I were to tell you everything I have seen again, and you could hear me, you'd believe that we who are dead are mad.
Right now I see, because I wanted to, the aurora borealis over the Edem Mills lake, lighting up schools of red fish at the bottom of a stand of bulrushes snowy with minute white snails, just as I contemplated it in the summer of 1928 or 1929, in mid-August. I see that caveman, the same one who painted the bison at Altamira and in our world was the Nazi sculptor Arno Breker, after Jules Verne found him in the middle of one of his novels and at the center of the earth. Still in the brilliance of the aurora that sets the night and the fish ablaze with its most fiery red, I see Julius Caesar (a Julius Caesar whom I always imagined resembling Ignacio Sánchez Mejías) reciting unrhymed couplets of satanic pride: "I'd rather be first in a village / than second in Rome."
In the same mix of resuscitated memories, visions of other reveries of mine appear at the edge of the lake and in the middle of the stage. I see Achilles the swift-footed, a pederast too for love of Patrocles. Centuries before Caesar was conceived and in some reading of my adolescence, I learned what he said to Ulysses when he went down to visit him in hell: "Don't try to console me for my death. It's better to serve a beggar than rule over all the dead."
Only now, dead and in this theater, do I understand Caesar's source when he plagiarized that unrhymed couplet after deforming it to the bombastic measure of his pride. In the final analysis, I suppose that power on earth is always reduced to this: to plagiarism. In other words, which are those of the learned men of the Royal Academy of the Castilian Language, to the subjugation of free men into slaves or the abduction of other men's servants to make them one's own. Nothing more but nothing less either. Know this.
With a voice that comes from the obscure roots of a scream and from this corner of eternity, I would like to shriek at you the despair of Achilles in the kingdom of shades. To tell you in a shout, even though you might not be able to hear me, that it is better to be the lowest of men, a beggar, a hangman's apprentice, a lackey, or an all-powerful despot, than to be king of the dead. A monarch preceding time, light, space, and silence itself, an absolute sovereign as eternal as the void, the master and creator of hell, who must reign over all the dead even though we don't know his name and his face.
Any instant of my fleeting, precipitate life, any of the moments now present and impossible on the stage in this theater, is better than immortality in hell. Even if the dead have nothing and aren't anyone, I'd give everything to really relive the simplest or most terrible of those hours that have fled, even the moment of my own death at the hands of my fellow men. To tread again with my own footsteps, the measure of my liberty for I could take them or not, the rainbow on the asphalt of Manhattan after the last summer rains, while the street burns in long gleaming striations that resemble agate in the twilight. Dazzling streams at the feet of the line of unemployed waiting for Al Capone's charity soup at Saint Patrick's refectory. To return to the Café Alameda, where I saw Ignacio Sánchez Mejías for the first time on earth, before people and pride separated us. To hear him say again: "Do you know what Pepe-Hillo replied, when he was fat, old, and suffering from gout and they advised him to abandon bullfighting? I'LL LEAVE HERE ON MY OWN TWO FEET, THROUGH THE MAIN GATE, HOLDING MY GUTS IN MY HANDS."
The magic of free will in hell incarnates those memories on stage. Still, the flashes from the past are always painted, not live. If I go up on the boards, so often confused by their apparent veracity, they vanish immediately at my approach. As a fata morgana flees before you tread on it, or vampires turn to ash at dawn. The proscenium and set are empty beneath the arch and raised curtains. The light from the transoms, which recalls amber or alabaster, illuminates only my shadow on stage. The useless shadow of a dead man, alone in eternity with the mirage of his memories.
In reality there was no encounter between Ulysses and Achilles in Hades either. A blind man merely dreamed it for us. Death is a solitary confinement where each of the dead has an empty theater along the spiral of hell. That is the tragedy of immortality before the spectacle of what has been lived: not ever being able to share it with anyone, as if I were the only man who has lived in vain on earth. Or just the opposite, as if I were the only dead man in the world. Imagine Robinson Crusoe on his island, or better yet, imagine him on the head of a pin, suddenly realizing that in the middle of the night and the universe he is completely alone, as if he were the guilty conscience of all creation. That is the fate of each of us.
You who are alive, who caress the back of a cat or a woman and see the sparks from the stroke of your hand, you fear death because you think it means the loss of consciousness. This may be the greatest irony of human reason in the void of an irrational firmament. You will never be able to imagine the martyrdom of living eternally awake. All I want now is to renounce immortality. To sleep at last and to sleep forever, free of words, memories, even dreams. "Now I shall go to sleep," said Byron in his agony, as he turned to the side his profile worthy of a Roman coin on a cot in Misolonghi, where he died in vain for the freedom of Greece. DORMEZ read the stone on a mass grave of those guillotined in the name of reason and the rights of man.
Vanity of vanities of a species that has not always been human and perhaps is destined to cease being human! Chosen from a time before all times, to be transformed the day after tomorrow into the fish in the Edem Mills lake lit by the aurora borealis in the Vermont night! You are condemned to be immortal. To endure awake, insomniac, and alone forever because this void where you dissolve and come to an end does not exist. It has never existed and this is the greatest irony of our fate! Know this!
"Death terrifies me," I once told Rafael Alberti and María Teresa León, I don't know if it was years or centuries ago. The three of us were standing in a field of flowering teasel before the Castle of Maqueda. In their luminous youth, in the sun of a resplendent Sunday, they both seemed to have come from a Florentine altarpiece. Alberti shook that profile of his, which like Byron's you would say had been minted into imperial sesterces. He replied that he could not decide when he thought about which would be the greater of two horrors, the uncertainty of our fate in death or its interminable eternity. I interrupted him and said that whatever might happen to me after I was dead, whether it was nothingness, the lucid bliss anticipated by Fray Luis de León, or a medieval hell, didn't matter to me. My panic, my absolute terror was simply the loss of my self: the inevitable renunciation of all I had been and who I had been until then. I never could have imagined, as perhaps no one in the world ever has, that death was in fact a sentence to be precisely who we were, fully conscious of ourselves, through all of time and perhaps beyond days and centuries.
That night, thinking perhaps about Rafael and María Teresa in the middle of the field, I wrote one of my sonnets of dark love. I learned afterward that it was interpreted as a poem of love for a man, because in my country nothing and no one has ever been judged correctly. In reality it was the expression of my old terror, just as I had stated it before the Castle of Maqueda. Desperation at the certainty I felt then that one day I would cease to be who I was among my fellow humans. In the long run, the poem was about irrevocable love though the loved one was me: that poor creature with his burning consciousness, like a match lit at the center of the world, condemned to disappear and be negated. That is what I believed then, though in hell I laugh when I remember it.
And I laugh at and am ashamed of the poem, which like others of mine I could recite from memory. It said that if the coolness of linen and ivy ruled the mortal body, the one that would be snatched from me along with life, my profile would become the long unashamed silence of a crocodile on the sands of eternity. Its irrational expression, the only one adequate to the senselessness of my human fate, withdrew into apparently more intelligible forms in the final tercets. Rhyming llama (flame) with retama (flowering broom), I declared that my kisses numb with cold would not be made of fire in death but of dry, frozen broom. Free of meters and unities (with a touch of fairly insincere resignation), I foretold that I would be invisible, divided between glacial branches and grieving dahlias.
In reality, hell is a desert very different from the one sketched in that sonnet. It is a spiral, perhaps interminable, in which each of the dead has an empty theater with its curtains raised. I can leave mine whenever I choose through the paneled door that opens with a touch of my hand at one end of the auditorium. Outside, a corridor about ten paces wide slopes upward, which I have walked to the point of exhaustion and which forms part of an arc whose radius I cannot imagine, for the slope of the ground, though real, is almost unnoticeable. From the gradient curve I deduced that an infinite number of turns followed one another around the same center. On the walls of the corridor the transoms of the theater are repeated, fairly far apart but equidistant. The same chrysoberyl light, emanating from I don't know where, keeps the orchestra section and the covered passage in identical semidarkness.
At times I stopped to think about the dimensions of hell. It must grow indefinitely, in constantly opening turns, adding new theaters for each new arrival. And it probably won't close until the last human being comes here, and by then the spiral will be the size of the universe. Don't ask me why or how I've come up with this calculation. I never went past adding on my fingers or multiplying next to the sign of X, but I'd swear I had the dimensions of hell right. Concluded and closed off, it would be as high and vast as the firmament. You could even say that then it would represent another firmament, invisible and parallel to our skies and constellations, empty of humans.
Like the transoms in the passage, the theaters on this spiral are equidistant. Farther along the corridor, a few hundred paces from my orchestra, is another identical one with the same stage opened at the back. I was there on several occasions but never could detect anyone in the auditorium, before I became certain that each of the dead is invisible to the eyes of all the others in hell. Whoever is there, for I sense that someone is being punished in that place, probably doesn't evoke his life or his dreams too frequently, for the boards, beyond the proscenium and above the orchestra, are always empty. Even though we cannot see one another, perhaps by virtue of the design that subjects us to this solitude, the visions of our memories or the memories of our illusions are in fact visible when presented on stage.
The next theater, a replica of the previous one and of mine, just as one tear duplicates another, does serve as the setting for representations. Someone consumes eternity there, devoting himself to strange memories. Through the uncurtained arch, behind the proscenium, a northern city appears. One of those Baltic cities redolent of salt and sun, its light so brilliant and unreal it hurts your eyes beneath the lazy flight of seagulls. Towers, windows, trees, and clouds gleam like precious stones at the heart of a delirium. The houses have red tile roofs onto which discouraged gulls descend, shrieking, while in the distance a flock of storks flies south. On a frozen pond, children wearing caps of scarlet wool glide in ice skates. Gentlemen stroll in top hats along the shore, monocles attached to their lapels, escorting blonde, white-skinned women with blue eyes, their hands hidden in fur muffs. Lights begin to go on in garrets under sloping roofs. Sleepy goblins unwillingly rush to hide under beds and at the bottoms of cedar chests. In large cases of carved wood displaying cornucopias and gilded inlays, all the clocks strike the same hour, while a smiling old man roasts chestnuts at the fireplace in a drawing room. In another room, a lank-haired, extremely thin student in a frock coat and spats cuts out paper dolls with a tailor's scissors for a little girl, while the scent of elderberry fills the air. Behind the windows of a shop, a cobbler polishes a pair of boots and sings as he works. His is a sad, languid melody that tells of the loves of roots formed by the mandrake in southern lands where men don't believe in Satan. In the distance a herd of reindeer passes, their horns twisted, their lips pink with cold, their fur covered in frost. In a cabin two hunters warm their frozen hands over a pot where eucalyptus seeds are boiling. The brilliance of many snows has darkened their faces, and they wear sheepskin jackets with curved knives hanging from the waist. In a tavern at the port, fishermen with green eyes and black beards drink dark beer. They are broad shouldered though somewhat hunch8 backed, and long scars crisscross their palms. The mounted head of a polar bear looks at them from the wall with its pink glass eyes. In the same living retable an elf in a nightshirt that is too long climbs the stairs of a bell tower, while the back of his shirt trails along the treads and risers of the steps. He carries a lit candle in one hand and a gold umbrella in the other. Brushes and brooms on his shoulder, a chimney sweep crosses the street paved with polished round stones. He is dressed all in black, and his very high top hat of German patent leather is pulled around his ears, like Raskolnikov before his crimes. He passes in front of a bronze statue of a king and queen whose endless shadow extends across the ice to the center of the lake. The monarchs are wrapped in ermine beneath the ruff of their collars and hold scepters in hands crossed on their chests, like the recumbent figures of other sovereigns lying on their tombs. Gulls rest on their shoulders and the wind from the Baltic whips their impassive faces, while evening descends across an amber sky.
Now everything suddenly changes on stage. The city has been transformed into an Italian villa, perhaps from the Renaissance. Next to a large window, a gentleman contemplates the dusk and sips distractedly from a glass of port. His trimmed, graying beard gives him a certain similarity to a figure by Veronese in The Wedding Feast at Cana. Perhaps to Aretino, who looks up to the heavens after the miracle is complete. In a darkened leather baroque chair with carved armrests sits an old woman in mourning who may be his mother, to judge by their vague resemblance. Through lace cuffs one can catch glimpses of her tiny white hands, furrowed with blue veins. In her right hand she squeezes a Mechelen handkerchief as she reprimands the nobleman in a German I don't understand. The same salmon-pink late afternoon shines through the windows of a painter's studio where a cardinal is posing. His mouth has the implacable expression of one who has seen the ghosts of poisoned popes slipping at Advent through the labyrinths of the Vatican rose garden. Very soon, in the semidarkness, his habits will flame like embers enlivened by a gale, while his dark eyes glitter beneath his brows. Around a solid marble table, the kind they say Blasco Ibáñez once had, thirteen velvet-clad councilors conspire in quiet voices. They have identical hands and faces, like thirteen twins. A perspiring rider gallops down the steep street, spurring his horse. At the door of an inn, a plump hussy, her breasts bare, calls to him by name and laughs, arms akimbo. As he passes he lashes her face with his whip, not stopping. A landscape of vineyards opens behind the city. The vines climb the slopes of the hills, cut into terraces of earth as red as cinnabar. Farther away blackbirds fly over a pine grove that perfumes the air with resin and honey. Yellow bees alight on the beds where fennel, thyme, bergamot mint, and pennyroyal all flower. A cloud of martins screeches and a snake slithers into the heather. Slow-moving white oxen, their haunches spattered with dark scabs, the inner corner of their eyes black with flies, come along the path pulling a wagonload of hay. They are led by a drowsy, barefoot boy, his torso bare, who sings a tune in an Italian I don't understand either. On the square a squad of soldiers parades to the roll of drums, as Milanese and Vatican standards wave. Muskets at the shoulder, a dagger at the waist, gored breeches, polished helmets, breastplates gleaming, mercenary beards and smiles, the troop opens before the church. At the open main door a naked woman appears, her flesh as fair as if exposed for the first time to the light of heaven. She has the gaze of one possessed who perhaps has forgotten her own visions or was blinded when she contemplated them. Her deep black hair falls over her breasts and back while the soldiers present their arms to her, their harquebuses raised to the sun of an afternoon as luminous as on Corpus Christi. The crowd presses as she passes and roars in a frenzy: "Viva, viva la ragione nuda e chiara!"—Long live naked fair reason!
Excerpted from The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell by CARLOS ROJAS Copyright © 1980 by Carlos Rojas . Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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