Sketches of Spain, by Federico Garcia Lorca

First published by Morning Star September 2016

Sketches of Spain – Federico García Lorca, translated by Peter Bush with Illustrations by Julian Bell (Serif £10)

Federico García Lorca was a poet, a playwright, a musician, a folk music expert and an artist. To some he is a symbol of the barbarity of fascism, to others he exemplifies the contradictions of a country barrelling towards civil war. Even today, this renaissance man born in a small town in Andalucía over a hundred years ago still manages to court controversy whilst remaining relevant. While Judge María Servini struggles against the silent complicity of institutional amnesia in her attempts to investigate his assassination, at the Young Vic Billie Piper takes to the stage wearing an “adapted” mantel of his 1934 tragic heroine Yerma.

But before Lorca became either a conduit for others or a symbol of a wider struggle, he was a young person growing up in a world that seemed at odds with who he was. At his core Lorca was a man whose very existence highlighted the shortcomings of the values, beliefs and perceptions of the society in which he lived. While struggling with this intellectual dissonance, he thankfully found mentors and companions in the hallowed halls of Granada University. Coming under the tutelage of two combative intellectuals who were erring towards a progressive liberal mindset, Lorca was given the opportunity he needed to blossom. This, his first book catalogues his thoughts on four study trips with one of these Professors around Andalucía and North-West and Central Spain.

Peter Bush’s translation and Julian Bell’s illustrations are an excellent addition to Lorca’s memorial. Sketches of Spain, originally published as Impresiones y paisajes in 1918, is a window into the mind that would go on to become one of Spain’s most translated writers, and arguably one of its most influential cultural icons. Written when he was only eighteen years old and published when he was twenty this translation gives an English speaking audience the opportunity to witness the beauty and horror of Lorca’s Spain.

We are allowed to walk alongside him as he develops the themes which will continue on throughout his work; sex and death, privilege and poverty, the natural and the man made. Echoing throughout these pages is the underlying struggle between the country’s past and its future, very much seen at the time as a conflict between the sacred and the profane and “the haves and the have-nots”. With his gentle hand to guide us we are taken on a journey of growth that is delicately woven into the rich natural and vibrant cultural tapestry that is Spain at the beginning of the twentieth century.

We wander through Avila, San Pedro de Cardeña, Santo Domingo de Silos, Burgos and Granada as he describes the architecture, artworks, history and people around us. In his informal naivety he asks us to take a moment off from our unquestioning acceptance and to see the world a little differently. The rhythmic ballet of Lorca’s language isn’t lost in this translation, if anything it seems to rise up from within it. The wonderment and effusiveness of youth infuses his every word as you try to keep up with him. Sometimes his natural inquisitiveness de-constructs the world around him at such a pace the beauty of the language escapes you.

Sketches of Spain lets you bear witness to the eighteen year old folk musician Lorca discovering the poet inside. In his prologue he tells us that every book is a garden, and how “lucky the man who can plant it out and blessed the man who cuts its roses and feeds his soul”. He begs the reader to look beyond the set horizons, to dream. And in his own words, to “experience in myriad shades” the garden he is planting out before us.

For many this book will be an ongoing source of wonder and insight into the development of a beautiful mind. For those who don’t have the opportunity to read Lorca in his own language, trust in Peter Bush’s unpretentious and welcoming translation not to sully the melodic metaphors. For those of us who don’t have the opportunity to take this with us as we retrace Lorca’s actual steps, let Julian Bell’s illustrations act as a visual echo of the world the musician is describing to us. In short, Sketches of Spain is a welcome addition to any library, doubly so for those of us who wish to see Spain’s past and all of our future a little differently.