Irish writer Ian Gibson is obsessed by Federico Garca Lorca and over the last 30 years has become one of the worlds best-known Hispanists. But as the 75th anniversary of his death is commemorated, Gibson admits that the mysteries surrounding the poet remain as alive as ever.
I first met Ian Gibson in 2004. While walking through the Madrid barrio of Lavapis, I had spotted a face that I remembered from the book flap of his biography of Federico Garca Lorca. Like a weak-kneed groupie, I followed him into a bar and confessed I was a fan of the biography as well as his exploration of the events that led up to Lorcas death, El asesinato de Garca Lorca. Gibson, who lived in the area, graciously invited me to sit down and have a drink and I spent 10 hurried minutes with him.
Seven years on, I meet Gibson at the same bar his choice, but this time the interview has been arranged by phone and it coincides with a new edition of his Lorca biography in Spanish, to commemorate the 75thanniversary of the poets death.
At 72, Gibson is currently working on a biography of Luis Buuel. Following those of Lorca and Salvador Dal, this will be the last of a trio of biographies of Spanish geniuses and the end of an era for the tireless, Dublin-born Gibson. But while Buuel and Dal clearly mesmerise him, Lorca has always been his driving passion, ever since visiting Spain in 1958.
I came here because I was obsessed by Federico Garca Lorca his work his poetry, his theatre, his life, the person, the people around him, the incredible things that were happening in Spain then, he says.
Like many foreigners in Spain, Gibson has an ambivalent attitude towards the country: it both fascinates and infuriates him. Perhaps researching the lives of extraordinary characters in a country that lacks a deep tradition of biographies a weakness in Spanish culture, he says exaggerates both the fascination and the infuriation.
There are things about Spain that I dont particularly like, there are other things that I think are fantastic and I dont see for the world why I shouldnt talk about this and say what I feel, he says. If I have any use here its to say what I think about diverse issues.
Clearly the literature and art produced by Spain, particularly around the middle of the last century, is something he admires, as is the countrys variety and its landscapes. On the other hand, he doesnt care for the quality of political debate in Spain, or its reluctance to face up to the past.
Not everyone wants to hear such opinions, even when they are based on decades of study. Gibson has a relatively high public profile he occasionally appears on Spanish television, wrote a regular column for El Pas for many years and now does so for Pblico. Being a foreigner who has delved into Spains turbulent 20thcentury history makes him an inevitable target for many, especially in a country that is so sensitive to what outsiders think, say and write about it.
In particular he upsets the political right. Columnist Francisco Alamn Castro holds a fairly typical Spanish-right view of the Irishman when he calls him a tendentious historian and a cruel citizen, for writing about our civil war.
I know that the fact Im here and I do what I do does irritate people, particularly on the right, Gibson sighs. There is the feeling that as the outsider: who the hell are you? Why dont you go home? And dont, for Gods sake, criticize.
A false dawn
His dogged research into the circumstances surrounding Lorcas death, near Granada, at the hands of Francoists at the start of the Civil War in 1936, is one reason Gibson manages to wind up the right so much.
In 2009, Gibsons theory regarding where Lorca was buried, along with three other men executed with him, was the basis of a search for the bodies in the hope of exhuming them and giving them proper burials. Judge Baltasar Garzns order to carry out the search was a major step forward in Spains slow progress towards understanding its historical memory, with an overjoyed Gibson telling El Pas that it was the most important day of my life.
But the jubilation was not to last. The exact spot identified by Gibson did not hold Lorcas body, although he believes the poet is buried somewhere nearby.
The situation is appalling, says Gibson, still visibly upset at the lack of official willingness to continue the search since 2009. With the conservative Popular Party now controlling Granada town hall and the local council and the Lorca family apparently unwilling to cooperate, he sees little hope of the man he sees as one of the worlds great cultural figures receiving a proper burial at least in the foreseeable future.
They dont want Lorca found because obviously, if Lorcas remains are found this will focus world attention on the poet and on what happened to the poet, Gibson says, identifying the political right as the problem.
Lorca is the maximum symbol of the victims of Francos war, so they wont look for him and I think this is terrible for him, for Spain, for the family, for everybody, because we want to know the truth. I think its terrible that this man who is the greatest Spanish ambassador of all time, whos done more for Spain than anybody else, you might say, whos loved around the world and admired and appreciated, that theyre not looking for him, that the stateisnt looking for him.
Lorcas voiceless legend
But where he is buried is not the only mystery surrounding Lorca. The fact that no recordings have been unearthed of his voice baffles Gibson.
Of all the poets of his generation, he was the one who most recited his work,” he says. “He was an actor, he was able to be the part. But its astonishing that this mans voice has not been found.
And before he heads back through the cacophony of mid-morning central Madrid to continue work on his Buuel biography, Gibson recalls with a chuckle one of Lorcas many talents: He had a great gift of listening to people in a country where hardly anyone listens.