“In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.”
—Federico Garcia Lorca
Underestimating China, in any regard, has never been a strategy that paid big dividends; not for nothing did Napoleon observe that when the sleeping dragon eventually awoke, “the world will shake”. Yet there were, weirdly enough, those who believed that Ai Weiwei was untouchable; that one of the most significant Chinese artists, political activists and cultural forces of our era was insulated from the reach of a reliably philistine Chinese government by his acclaim and celebrity. He appeared as a daring exception, a provocateur whose work and words the authorities had no choice but to grudgingly tolerate. What other conclusion is there to draw, when the man stages an exhibition with a title that, with a slight mispronunciation, sounds almost exactly like ‘Fuck your mother, the Communist Party central committee’ in the original Chinese?
Such naiveté was effectively dispelled in April of this year when he was suddenly arrested, and after nearly three months of detention, was released on bail only to be subjected to vilification in China’s state media, a Kafkaesque appraisal of his financial affairs and a spontaneously generated tax bill for $1.9 million. The worldwide publicity surrounding Weiwei’s imprisonment, and the wave of international protest and condemnation it triggered, did little to inconvenience the Chinese government. As far as they were concerned, the argument was concluded. With the arrest of Weiwei, they had made their position clear: no one is untouchable.
The reappearance of this old rule in a deadly game seems especially apt as we approach August 19th, marking the 75th anniversary of the poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s murder at the hands of a fascist death squad in the early, chaotic days of the Spanish Civil War. The two cases are not without contrasts; as impervious to world opinion as the Chinese government may be, it seems it would rather see a solution to the Ai Weiwei problem that didn’t end in a well-publicised corpse.
Sadly, Lorca’s fate did not trigger international outrage equivalent to that of Weiwei’s until it was far too late. But then, Lorca was not facing the sophisticated apparatus of a monolithic totalitarian state—he met his demise through thugs with guns and only the most mocking pretense of authority, of the kind that usually oversee such a regime’s birth pangs.
It’s shaming, in a way, to focus so much on Lorca’s death. In the introduction to his investigative polemic, The Assassination of Federico Garcia Lorca (which proposes arguably the most persuasive—and certainly most heartbreaking—account of the poet’s final days and hours), Ian Gibson wrote of meeting a local of Granada who reacted with disgust to Gibson’s anxious questioning. The old man was certain of the polite English historian’s intentions: he had not come to write about the city of Granada, or what happened during the war, or Lorca’s life and art. He had come to write about Lorca’s death, like all the foreign writers before him. It was true. The unknowables of the case are too tantalising, made all the more so by the fact that his body, like so many others whose abrupt disappearance heralded the rise of Francoism, was never found.
Mythic deaths haunt us. We imbue them with meaning—especially the tragic, pointless ones—and then reenact them in the mind’s eye, playing voyeur to our own history. We try to penetrate the loneliness of final moments by hazily building a picture with what we know. So what do we know of Lorca’s death? The Spanish sun. The crack of gunshots.
Lorca was a poet of no school. He’s usually included among the Spanish poets known as the Generation of ‘27, but they were generally grouped together, paradoxically, by virtue of their shared resistance to stylistic categorisation. He was a dramatist who brought theatre to the people, a homosexual who lived as openly as he could in an era where to live at all was no certainty, a supporter of the Republic and the sympathiser with the ruling leftist Popular Front. He had friends and admirers across the political and social spectrum, aroused controversy without courting it as shamelessly as some of his contemporaries, and in perhaps the last age where a poet could truly be considered famous, did everything he could to earn and justify that acclaim. He did not have the demagogic impulse that often proves useful for some artists, or is simply irrepressible in others. He once joked in a lecture that “whenever I speak before a large group I think I must have taken the wrong door.”
As with most artists who are “vanished”, there was little protocol or officialdom in his execution. Some muttered mentions of “subversive activities”, no hint of a trial, no kind of court for him to stand in and try to make a case for his continued existence. Imagine that: asking a poet to justify his life. What poetry might rise to meet that challenge? Even fascists knew better. Indeed, the regimes in question usually seem to be vestigially aware of just how well the state-sanctioned murder of artists tends to play with the public. In 1937, with the civil war still raging, General Franco took the time to issue the official line. “I say it again: we have shot no poets.”
This is reason why Lorca’s death unsettled many then, and haunts us still today: Governments tend to take on their worst form, to devolve to their most horrific manifestation, when they kill artists. Artists look out into the horrors of the world, and inevitably, the horrors sometimes reach back.
In recent weeks, reminders of Lorca’s death have emerged elsewhere. Amid Weiwei ‘s ongoing saga and new accusations that the death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda may have had more to do with General Pinochet’s orders than the stomach cancer he was suffering from, Miguel Caballero Pérez, a Granada historian, announced at the end of June that after three years of ploughing through police and military records, interviews, rumours and misinformation, he has penetrated much of the mystery that surrounds Lorca’s death. In The Last 13 Hours of Garcia Lorca, Pérez’s new book, he claims to have identified the career policemen and volunteers who comprised the firing squad which executed the poet, along with hundreds of other left-wing sympathisers during the summer of 1936, for a bonus of 500 pesos. Whatever motivated the order to kill Lorca, Perez believes it is unlikely the executioners themselves knew who he was. To put it lightly, these were, in Perez’s words, “not the sort of people who read poetry.”
Perez’s investigation, like those that have come before it, deals in unanswered questions and unfinished business. In Spain, it’s better known as ‘Historical Memory’, the aspiration, now codified in an eponymous Spanish law, that none of the horrors of the civil war should be forgotten, and that the repudiation of the Francoist regime by history is of the utmost necessity. It is what motivates those who still haven’t given up the long, grim search for Lorca’s final remains. A team from the University of Granada attempted excavations in October 2009, on the site near Alfácara used as a mass-grave by the Nationalists during their first wave of anti-communist executions, in the most recent (and unsuccessful) attempt to locate what’s left of the poet—an exercise in trying to find bones amidst bones.
Such enterprises still make some acutely uncomfortable. In 1977, following Franco’s death, an amnesty known as the pacto de olvido was declared, which had the effect of essentially shutting down all discussion of the past. The campaign for ‘Historical Memory’ is changing that, but the backlash has been at times explosive: the mass-grave at Alfácar was only one of 19 that was ordered to be excavated—a spectacle that challenges all those who have grown up being told, and have gone on to teach their children, that in their darkest hour they did what they had to do in order to prevent the inevitable slide of the Second Republic into Bolshevism. As skeletons are unearthed, it must be hard to cling to that.