The banality of crime

The Parque Federico García Lorca in Granada, the poet’s probable place of execution

The circumstances of Federico García Lorca’s death were surrounded by uncertainty and legends over a long time. In recent years a number of books have been published on it, among which the most important ones are those by the Hispanist Ian Gibson, from The death of Lorca (1971), which was banned in Francoist Spain, to The man who killed Lorca (2007). A few weeks ago, for the Spanish Day of the Book appeared Miguel Caballero Pérez’s Las trece últimas horas en la vida de García Lorca which, based on the research of many years, reveals in details the events of the “thirteen last hours” and the identity of the executioners, as well as their particular interests – family feud, political career, washing off a Republican policeman’s past – in this murder on 17 August 1936, * exactly one month after the outbreak of the right-wing uprising against the Republic, when it was already clear that everyone can expect the recognition of the new system on the basis of his participation in the local cleansing. Below we translate the essay on the volume by Antonio Muñoz Molina in today’s edition of Babelia.

Lorca and his family in their house in Granada. From this picture is missing his sister Concha,
who is portrayed together with the poet on the photo below, and whose husband, a
former mayor of Granada, was murdered on the morning of Lorca’s arrest

We need to magnify the causes of tragic events. If something is outrageous or atrocious, our superstitious imagination requires that its motives be at the height of its resonance: that great scoundrels and tyrants be uniquely smart and twisted, that those triggering off a war be driven by extreme forms of evil, that the worst crimes respond to highly organized conspiracies. We are frightened by horrors, but we are perhaps even more frightened to suspect that those who committed them did so for petty or trivial reasons, or even with some distraction. We need things to have happened according to some grand plan, a proportionality between causes and consequences. We are heirs to the Christian idea of predestination and Newtonian mechanics: if something happened, it was because it had to happen, and the historian has to draw the line between the dots of its causes, just as the astronomer calculates the orbit of a celestial body or a theologian reveals with reverence the divine plan. The possibility of indeterminacy, contingency and chaos, that serious events can be triggered by a casual combination of insignificant circumstances and fragmented projects, produces in us the same, ultimately religious malaise, as in those who five centuries ago could not accept that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Since Federico García Lorca is one of the major poets of the past century, and as his death quickly acquired symbolic dimensions, thus we instinctively feel the need to magnify the circumstances of his assassination, the shadow of his murderers, and even the physical space which served as a theater to the tragedy. Se le vio caminar entre fusiles / por una calle larga, “he was seen passing between rifles / along a long street”, wrote Antonio Machado, thus filling the blank of the missing data with dimensions worthy of the greatness of the tragedy: as if the poet passed on in a procession along his own via crucis. But in the reality the street, the streets on which he was led in the heart of Granada, are short and narrow; the places where he was imprisoned are very close to each other; and those arresting and taking him to the city hall were only a few, just like those who later carried him by car to a desolated place not far from the city on an August night. Inspired by his biographers as well as by our habits of visual exaggeration, we imagine the house of the Rosales family in the Angulo street being surrounded by armed guards and civilians, with rifles at the corners and on terraces and roofs. And, to increase the drama even with a shade of everyday life, there is who recalls the poet having been taken to the street in pajama: Lorca disheveled as freshly plucked from the bed, Christ among the executioners at the first station of the Via Crucis, the black car full of armed men taking him away. Over the years and with the witnesses gradually disappearing, several details that matter have been lost: in another version Lorca came out dressed from the Rosales house, in jacket and tie, but the tie hastily knot was awkwardly hanging on his shirt.

José Luis Trescastro, Lorca’s second cousin, who captured the poet
Of all this visual and narrative repertoire, one of the few elements that seem certain, is the car, one single car, which stopped around noon on the sidewalk, and from which three people got out. Miguel Caballero Pérez with a minute research identifies all the three, and even the model: it was an Oakland enrolled in Granada, a large vehicle with an emphatic bodywork, quite fitting to the character of its owner, José Luis Trescastro, a braggart local boss of Vega and a leader of Gil Robles’ Acción Popular, closely linked to those relatives of the García Lorca family who nurtured old grievances against the Lorcas. For many years, this Trescastro publicly boasted of having killed the poet, enriching the narrative with coarse details, which shows that he was not only a scoundrel, but also a liar, because he newer saw the poet after handing him over at the city hall. Of the three faces seen by Lorca when he got in the Oakland – we instinctively imagine it as black, but this is arbitrary: of this model there were also blue, bottle green and yellow ones – the other two were also two mere ciphers: a Falangist schoolteacher who joined the group out of curiosity or by chance in the last moment, and a former right-wing deputy, Ramón Ruiz Alonso, the best known figure in this scenario of cowardice, a resentful demagogue without success, a third-row political puppet, one of those reckless and obsessive idiots which are capable of causing disasters far beyond their insignificant stature. Luis Rosales, who knew what he spoke of, described him better than anyone else: “Federico had to die because he was the missing piece in the puzzle of the political ambitions of a moron.”

Miguel Caballero has no propensity for literary imagination, for better or for worse. His book, The thirteen last hours in García Lorca’s life progresses with the monotony of an administrative report, enumerating the details of locations, hours and names, reproducing the obtuse and criminal prose of fascist bureaucracy, analyzing the biographies of each of the executioners from the birth certificate to that of death, sometimes accompanied by blurry passport photos which are especially upsetting for us because they show us the faces that Federico García Lorca saw for the last time before his death. Two of the executioners, disloyal members of the Guardia de Asalto, the Republican police, had won prizes in shooting just two months earlier during the Corpus Christi celebrations. A third one, a sergeant with a coarse face poses neatly on a photo in the late forties with his daughter wearing a tie. But the scariest is a flat-nosed round face with drooped eyelids and fleshy, grinning mouth, Antonio Benavides Benavides, who after the civil war had the career of a drunkard, card-sharper and pimp policeman, and who, when drunk, often boasted of having shot twice in the head of that “egghead”.

Others, like the Jiménez Parga brothers, decent lawyers who eventually allowed themselves the small vanity of noble surnames, did not use weapons, but composed lists in the offices of the city hall, including and removing names and signing gasoline vouchers for cars that traveled the city day and night, that small city where there were almost no distances, in which the stages and times of the crime are compressed: the few minutes it took to Lorca to get from Huerta de San Vicente to the Rosales house, those few hundred meters that separated this last refuge from the back door of the city hall that could have easily done on foot. And the poet, dying of fear, slowly understood, that in those places without relief and among those familiar and vulgar faces, reflecting contempt and provincial hatred, and probably also sarcasm at the sight of the vulnerability of their famous and now humiliated countryman – who did he think he was? – he is living the last hours of his life.

En el Café de Chinitas. Andalusian song. Text and music written and arranged, and performed here by Federico García Lorca, sung by La Argentinita. From the album Canciones Populares Antiguas (1931)

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