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The City and the Writer: In Granada, Spain with Anthony Geist

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                                                  —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Granada as you feel/see it?

Granada shares with the other iconic cities of southern Spain—Sevilla, Córdoba, Cádiz, Málaga—a quality of light that I have rarely seen elsewhere. It cuts the cityscape into a chiaroscuro of brightness and shadow that makes both the Moorish Alhambra palace and the sixteenth-century cathedral simultaneously wound and soothe the eyes. Like other parts of Andalucía, Granada is home to flamenco and gypsy singers and dancers. Yet behind this shimmering exterior there lurks a darkness that has always attracted me. Granada was the last stronghold of the Moors who occupied Spain for eight hundred years, and perhaps the pathos of their defeat and expulsion left an undercurrent of melancholy. It also saw the execution of Federico García Lorca, Spain’s greatest poet of the last century, during the opening days of the country’s bloody civil war. As I wind through the narrow alleys of the Albayzín or walk down the Paseo de los Tristes looking up at the towers of the Alhambra glowing red in the fading light of dusk, I experience their beauty with a twinge of tragedy.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

In the spring of 1983, I was directing a study abroad program in Granada and invited Rafael Alberti, one of Spain’s greatest poets and surviving member of the heralded Generation of 1927, to give a lecture and poetry reading. The week he stayed in my apartment proved to be one of the richest of my life. Through him I met a number of young poets who a few years later would dominate the literary scene in Spain and who remain close friends today. Alberti and García Lorca were close friends and unspoken rivals. One of Alberti’s most famous poems, written from exile after the Civil War, was “Nunca fui a Granada” (I never went to Granada), in which he lamented not accepting Lorca’s invitation to visit.

One morning our hosts picked us up and drove us into the mountains that surround Granada, to the canyon of Víznar, where Lorca lies in an unmarked grave. The thought of that exquisite poet murdered by fascist thugs and buried with several others under an ancient olive tree was and is heartbreaking.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Because Granada is situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada and at the confluence of the Darro and the Genil rivers, you tend to look up, toward the gypsy caves of the Sacromonte, toward the towers of the Alhambra, toward the mysterious walled villas of the Albayzín and the steep streets that wind up through the Realejo to the Generalife. You rarely look down at the cobbled streets, and so few people see or notice the iron plates covering the faucets that street cleaners use to hose down the streets every night. Those plates, like the much larger manhole covers, are emblazoned with the symbol of the city: a pomegranate (granada), split open to reveal its rich grains. One sits on a shelf in my office, the fruit of vandalism in my younger days.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Granada is a city of poets, few of whom are translated to English. In this sense García Lorca is an exception. His Gypsy Ballads, Poet in New York, and Sonnets of Dark Love, written near the end of his life, are must-reads. He was also an extraordinary playwright. Not to be missed is his trilogy of rural tragedies: Blood Wedding, Yerma, and The House of Bernarda Alba. In the early 1980s, shortly after the end of the Franco dictatorship, a group of young poets emerged in Granada writing what they called the “poetry of experience.” Alvaro Salvador, Luis García Montero, Javier Egea and Ángeles Mora in a few short years would become major voices in the literary landscape of Spain. Very little of their work is available in translation. Luis Muñoz has just brought out From Behind What Landscape in English. More recently a new generation of young poets has given life to the literary scene in Granada, including Fernando Valverde, who has been translated to English.

Is there a place here you return to often?

There are many places I come back to on my trips to Granada—the Alhambra, the old silk market in the Alcaicería, the Paseo de los Tristes—but one of my touchstones is El Rincón de Aurora, an outdoor restaurant in the Plaza de San Miguel Bajo, a square high in the old Arabic quarter overlooking in one direction the city sprawling into the fertile vega, and in the other direction the ramparts of the Alhambra. The restaurant is nestled in the corner of the square, in the shadow of the thirteenth-century bell tower, once the minaret of a mosque, of San Miguel Bajo church. El Rincón de Aurora serves country food, including the most delicious and delicate fried eggplant I have ever eaten.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

García Lorca’s family country home, la Huerta de San Vicente—formerly in the surrounding agricultural fields which Granada has now enveloped in its urban sprawl—has been turned into a museum and cultural institution, and is well worth a visit. But I favor La Tertulia, a bar run by Tato, an Argentine exile who came to Granada in the late seventies fleeing the Videla dictatorship in his country. Located on a side street in a non-descript modern neighborhood, La Tertulia quickly became home to bohemians and hippies, poets, musicians and artists of all stripes. It was there that I read, in a mano a mano with Ángel González, my translations of his poetry. I heard innumerable debates, poetry readings and manifestos on the little stage at the back of the bar. On a recent visit Tato pulled me aside and gave me a photo of me with Rafael Alberti taken there one night long ago.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Granada is an amalgamation of different cities that reflect the many stages of its history. Those that have seduced me are not exactly hidden, they are more like secrets in plain sight. The old Arabic quarter, el Albayzín, rises steeply from the Darro river to the west of the Alhambra. Its narrow streets wind uphill, suddenly opening onto hidden plazas with fountains and balconies, only to continue onto other cobbled alleys. On the eastern slope of the Alhambra lies el Realejo, the ancient Jewish quarter, crisscrossed by streets that defy the straight line. These cities are hidden in the sense that they are ultimately unknowable, literally unfathomable. Hence their seductive power.

Where does passion live here?

Passion lives in the delicate carved plasterwork of the Alhambra, in the dark alleys of the old neighborhoods, in the poetry of García Lorca. It lives in the melancholy and tragedy of that dark side of the city that attracts me.

What is the title of one of your works about Granada and what inspired it exactly?

“With Butterflies in His Beard: A Reading of Poet in New York,” is a study of the poetry Lorca wrote during his stay in New York from 1929 to '30. How does a poet from Granada, sophisticated though he was, process one of the world’s biggest and most important cities? I was fascinated by the surrealist turn in his poetry as he confronted a foreign language and city at a critical moment in modern capitalism. Lorca witnessed the crash of Wall Street, frequented the nightclubs of Harlem, and explored the countryside in Vermont.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Granada does an outside exist?”

This question reminds me of Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland: “There is no there there.” An outside does exist outside Granada, and granadinos are very aware of it and often drawn to it, only to return. Part of that outside is the art world and the publishing industry. Though the dynamic has changed in the last 30 years or so, to make it in the literary or art world, you really need to be in Madrid, or Paris, or New York.

Anthony L. Geist’s recent translations of the poetry of the Peruvian poète maudit Luis Hernández, The School of Solitude (Swan Isle Press, 2015), have recently been longlisted for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. He has published widely on the twentieth and twenty-first century poetry from Spain and Latin America, and translated the work of Jorge Guillén, Federico García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Luis García Montero, Alvaro Salvador, and Raquel Lanseros, among others. He co-produced and co-directed a documentary on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Souls without Borders, that has been screened in over one hundred festivals and venues in the US, Spain and Latin America. Geist is the author of They Still Draw Pictures: Children's Art in Wartime from the Spanish Civil War to Kosovo, the catalog for a traveling exhibit he curated of children’s drawings from the Spanish Civil War that has shown in the US, Spain, Russia, Cuba and Puerto Rico. In October 2015 he opened an exhibit of the paintings of the Basque exile artist Miguel Marina in Bilbao, Spain. He is a Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Published Feb 3, 2016   Copyright 2016 Nathalie Handal

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