The Thousand Tambourines that Wound the Dawn
I traveled to Spain determined to free myself from the grasp of a poem that had been haunting me for over a decade. It was my friend Ann who suggested the idea. Ann runs a business that provides people with the opportunity to pursue the classics in far flung places – Dante in Italy, Joyce in Ireland, Milosz and Rozewicz in Poland. Ann's unflagging belief is that a country can best be known through its great literary works and what better way to explore these works than discussing them in situ , in the glorious piazzas of Venice say, or inside a guest house in the Aran Islands?
If we were to travel to Spain, it would have to be to the region of Andalucía. It is Andalucía that has provided the world with all the images that make Spain so distinctive – flamenco, the bullfight, manzanilla sherry and expansive olive groves – a chunk of land as big as Hungary where in the Middle Ages Muslims, Jews and Christians somehow found a way to live harmoniously for over seven centuries. As to the writer, here again there could only be one possibility – Federico García Lorca, that poetic genius of the twentieth century who lived gloriously and died tragically, shot to death in the early days of the Civil War of 1936 by a member of the right wing Falange too ignorant to know that he was not only assassinating a great man but the spirit of modern Spain itself.
I had my own reason for wanting Lorca: the Romance Sonámbul, the poem that had infected me when I had chanced upon it quite innocently years before, an encounter from which I had not yet fully recovered. Green that I love you Green, it begins in dreamy tones, green wind, green branches. The ship on the sea and the horse on the mountain. There would be very little green on the trip – Andalucía is a land of spectacular blood reds and ochre yellows but there would be ample opportunity to delve into the meaning of this mysterious poem.
All summer I prepared for the trip. I read other poems from Lorca's Gypsy Ballads. I listened to flamenco sung by Antonio Agujetas, Tina Pavón, and Niño Olivares. I immersed myself in the history of the region. And then I waited, for if I had lived with the mystery for fourteen years, the prospect of another six months of waiting was certainly bearable.
With darkness around her waist she dreams on her balcony; green flesh, green hair, with eyes of cold silver.
We arrive in late September to a Seville that is basking in unseasonably high temperatures. It is thirty six degrees in the early afternoon and it will climb to over forty in the next few hours. "Isn't this heat abnormal at this time of the year?" I ask our cab driver who has been complaining, until now, of the machinations of corrupt Spanish politicians. "Heat? This isn't heat," he says, dismissing me with a wave of his hand. "You should have been here in the summer. Fifty degrees at times!"
"Qué barbaridad !" I exclaim. "What do you do in those infernal temperatures?"
"What do you do?" he asks, looking at me incredulously, "Why you strip down to your underpants, lie on the cold tiles and hope it all goes away quickly!"
Inside our hotel in the Barrio of Santa Cruz there are no tiles on the bedroom floor but rather an ornate carpet that has imbibed the humidity of the place and is releasing it in the form of an unpleasant, musky odour. Other than this, however, it is as if we have stepped into the pages of an exotic fairy tale. Once the dwellings of the fifteenth-century Jewish nobility, the hotel is comprised of a series of stone houses linked together by innumerable courtyards, each different, each singularly spectacular.
Across the way lie the labyrinthine streets that make up Seville's historic Jewish quarter, streets that snake and wind perilously until they meet at the square where the Alcázar and the Cathedral sit, majestic testaments to a time when Seville was not a city but a universe. It was Gabriel García Márquez who once pointed out that only the square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela could possibly rival the beauty of the one in Sienna but I would be so bold as to suggest this square as well, surrounded by none of the natural splendour that makes Santiago's so magnificent perhaps, but striking in its vestments of stone nonetheless.
By the Alcázar I ask a local about the Archives of the Indies, the building that houses all of the documents related to the discovery and conquest of the Americas. The old man points to a spot behind the Cathedral but then quickly adds, "But it is closed for renovation, Señora." When will it open again, I ask? "Who knows?" he replies. "Next week, two weeks from now, perhaps. Some day for sure." I ask then where the Torre de Oro lies. He points south towards the banks of the Guadalquivir. "But you can't go there, Señora," he quickly adds. "It too is being renovated." He suggests I go to the Cathedral and take a look at the tomb of Columbus. "Columbus?" I ask. "But it has been proven that the man in that tomb in most certainly not Columbus." It is true. All that week Radio Nacional de España has been broadcasting the conclusions reached by the scientists who had been provided with a sample of the DNA inside the tomb. The subject is of the right age, they concur, but the DNA does not provide evidence for the many ailments that were known to have assailed the famous explorer.
The old man cocks his head, gives me a half-smile tinged with a hint of sadness. "The man in that tomb is Columbus." He says gravely, "Make no mistake about it, Señora. I have seen him many times myself, wandering around the aisles of the Cathedral once dark falls."
Inside that Cathedral, the largest Gothic monument in the world, a phantasmagoric pastiche of gold and stone and velvet, I sit by that tomb and think once again of the Romance Sonámbulo. Is it a tale about an injured smuggler on his way to see his beloved, a gypsy girl dead on a balcony moments before he is to meet his own death at the hands of the Civil Guards? Or is it something more? There is, in this poem, as in much of Lorca's work, a commingling of past and present, of the visible and the invisible, of a longing that elevates the work from the confines of time and space to the universal, the archetypal. And then there is the language, the green wind, the green flesh, the bitter sea and of course the gypsy moon, because for Lorca, a poet so attuned to the concept of the feminine, there is always the moon in her many guises.
Gail, a member of our group, joins me on the bench and our talk turns to death. She has just lost a beloved friend to cancer and I am finding myself deep in the throes of a mid-life crisis. We sit there for almost an hour, our heads bent, our voices quiet, watching passively as the stream of tourists stop solemnly before the tomb of the man who may or may not be Columbus.
Let me go up, at least, up to the green balconies, let me go up! Let me up to the high balconies; Balconies of the moon where the water thunders.
In Seville, the music escapes from every possible nook and cranny. From beneath the weathered stones that have paved the streets for centuries, you can hear the desperate cries that lie at the heart of a seguirilla. Saetas, songs of adoration to the virgin, tumble from the balconies. In the corners of hidden alleyways, guitarists with long hair and framed photographs of themselves with Paco de Lucía, strum away deliriously as if performing inside a grand concert hall. Here and there, an aria drifts out from a half-opened window. It is easy to see why so many important operas are set in this city, set there, incidentally, by people who had never set foot on her doorstep. You wonder after days of being seduced by all this music why an opera has ever been set in a city other than Seville. It is not only the music but the setting – the silver balconies, the jasmine, the Arabic patios with their potted flowers, the many orange trees. Many before me have succumbed to the delirium that this city engenders and after four days of wandering the streets, of imbibing the music, of feasting on tortilla de vegetales and calamares fritos, I have surrendered unconditionally. I long now only to feel that long wind that leaves the strange taste behind of bile, mint and basil.
I think of the gypsies that lie at the heart of Lorca's work and who figure so prominently in other creative works from Bizet's incomparable Carmen to that strange novella by James Michener, Miracle in Seville , where two women – one of them a degenerate gypsy – deck it out during Holy Week. It is the gypsies who are the guardians of the twin emblems of all things Spanish – the bullfight and flamenco – the same gypsies who once stalked you by the Cathedral with hands outstretched, begging for a child, a mother, for the virgin in her many Andalusian guises. This time the gypsies are not lying in wait by the Cathedral. They are nowhere to be seen in fact. It is as if the town council that is busy renovating every façade of this ancient, beautiful city, has carried them over the bridge to Triana, far from the city's historic centre where all manner of foreigners wander dazzled by the lime-washed houses and the brilliant sky and the promise of a garlicky gazpacho I can imagine the gypsies there, living their own secret lives far from those who would try to mythologize or demonize them; far from our prying eyes.
The two friends climb up to the high balconies; leaving a trail of blood; leaving a trail of tears. Tiny tin lamps tremble on the rooftops. A thousand tambourines of glass wound the dawn.
We decide to take a tour of the Maestranza – Seville's historic bullfighting ring outside of which Carmen was stabbed to death by Don José and inside of which, we are informed by a rather lifeless guide, only three matadors have met their deaths in this century.
We are driven there by curiousity, by our repulsion, by the idea of a spectacle that to our inexperienced, unknowing eyes seems nothing short of barbarous. We are drawn there by the seductive notion of duende , that power that everybody has felt but which nobody can define, that spirit that transforms a technically skilled performance until a torrent of rapture; that quality which infected the songs of the famous cantaor Manuel Torre and which made people weep, made them despair in ways they had never imagined. It is that quality that lies at the heart of the bullfight, the song of the cantaor who digs deep into his gut; the poem that transcends words and becomes pure spirit.
It is said by some that the bullfight is a metaphor, a symbol, a ritual that shows us how to die with dignity. And it is true, for all the fiestas, for all the bright colours, for all the singing and dancing that emerges from this extroverted culture, make no mistake about it – the Spaniards are obsessed with death. It is in their art, their music, their religious festivals. As Lorca himself once said, in Spain a dead man is more alive than anywhere else on the planet.
On the surface of the cistern sways the gypsy girl. Green flesh, green hair with eyes of cold silver. An icicle of moonlight holds her afloat above the water....
At last, we come together to discuss the poem. In one of the courtyards of our hotel, with glasses of wine in hand and the quiet determination of seasoned scholars we make our way through Lorca's universe. I think of how Lorca himself spoke about this world, of "its gypsies, horses, archangels, planets, its Jewish breeze, its Roman breeze, rivers, crimes, the everyday touch of the smuggler and the celestial touch of the naked children of Córdoba who tease Saint Raphael." For the moment though, we are to look at this poem independent of scholarly theories or the poet's own musings. We are to approach it naked, like those children, attempting to make sense of the mysteries.
We argue back and forth about whether the gypsy girl is dead and if so, how? Has she killed herself or has she been murdered by the Civil Guards? And what of the young man, why is he leaving behind a trail of blood? We argue, we reason, we find evidence in the text and then listen as someone finds something else to contradict it.
Finally, after two hours, Chris, a botanist from Idaho who has been listening quietly until now, speaks up. "You insist on seeing death in this," he tells us quietly, "but I do not see death at all. I see a series of metaphors, each beautiful, each spectacular, each of which can stand on its own certainly, but which when put together are as perfect as a botanical garden."
From behind a corner of the courtyard I think I hear the poet himself, sighing in contentment. After all, was he not the master of metaphor? And is not literalism the enemy of poetry, the enemy of song, a partner, often only to intolerance?
I read the poem again, savouring now only the language.
Green that I love you green; green wind, green branches, the boat on the sea and the horse on the mountain.
From that corner, Lorca nods, Lorca smiles and I finally feel a gust of the long wind that leaves behind that strange taste of bile, mint and basil.