It is inevitable that the older we get, the more will our lives’ definition feel sculpted and immutable. Death may mean the release from the slings and arrows of the mortal struggle, but it will also force a reconciliation with all those things left undone: the books we’re just not going to get around to reading, the places we’ll never manage to visit, those lovers we fell short of, those avenues we leave unexplored.
Most visions of the afterlife entail some kind of deliverance from the burdens imposed by memory—after all, what heaven could be more fitting than one where we transcend our Earthly failures? Spanish author Carlos Rojas ingeniously shows us the arch obverse of that in The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell: the inferno as an eternity with our regrets. Here, the titular poet is found in a hell that resembles an infinitely long spiral where each soul exists in a sort of solitary confinement with his or her own memories projected onto a personal stage, complete with rows of seats for the lonely spectator. (Cleverly, Lorca deems Proust’s Recherche the exact literary embodiment of this existence.) “For the dead everything is unanimous presence at a perpetually unreachable distance,” the poet reflects. He surmises that the spiral is densely populated with other beings, as he can see their memories projected on their own stages, though he cannot see a single one of them.
In this strange, short book’s first quarter, titled “The Spiral,” Rojas evokes Lorca’s environment and accustoms us to his narration, elegantly rendered in a wry, Peninsular English by Edith Grossman. Amidst this scene-setting, Rojas asides a number of beautiful glosses on relevant Lorca poems and begins the work of recreating Spain in the early 20th century, as seen through the poet’s memory. He also establishes two touchstones of the novel: the first is the bullfighter Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, an emblem of romance to the Generation of ’27, fatally gored by a bull, and immortalized in verse by Lorca; the other is a viewing of Monet’s La Gare Saint Lazare, whichLorca experienced as a young man with his parents. The first reminds us that life, forever fleeting, can impose its verdict any moment, while the second captures an instant outside of time, art’s bold defiance of mortality Rojas will return to these images repeatedly, drawing their associations into Lorca’s increasingly fraught attempts to make sense of his milieu.
Although Lorca has been in hell long enough to have become familiar with many of its workings, it soon becomes clear that the realm holds surprises for him. Once again poring through the fateful day that saw him board a train from Madrid to Granada, where he would soon meet his doom at the hands of fascist executioners, he is startled when the following words appear on his stage: “prepare for your trial.” Are these words directed to the dead Lorca in reference to some astral judgment he will soon experience, or do they pertain to the mortal Lorca, whom will soon be judged by the fascists? This is the first of many teasing ambiguities that make this novel richly, but calmly metafictional. “I don’t know whether I’m accused of having been born or having been murdered,” muses the poet in a typically sardonic turn.
The novel becomes stranger still. As Lorca ponders this surprise, he wanders to an adjacent stage, which is illuminated by images of an elderly Ramón Ruiz Alonso, the man who arrested Lorca in Granda, in conversation with a writer named Sandro Vasari. As the two men converse, it becomes clear that the latter is researching a novel about Lorca very much like the one we are currently reading. (It is to this same Vasari that Rojas dedicates his book, “with the gratitude of C.R.”) “I don’t want to write a book,” Vasari declares to Ruiz Alonso, “but a dream,” and then proceeds to explain that in this book, his hell-spiral will have a theater very much like Lorca’s where his memories will be displayed, the place where his imaginary Lorca now stands. Is the trial that Lorca must prepare for his discovery that he is nothing more than another man’s fancy?
And yet stranger: the poet returns to his own theater, and, after a remarkable, fractured set-piece in which Rojas drolly yet affectingly narrates the poet’s arrest, Lorca discovers he is seated next to an old man, apparently the first fellow soul he has encountered in the spiral. We soon come to realize this man is Lorca himself—a version of him who did not stay on the train that fateful day and went on to live a full life and receive the Nobel Prize in literature. “I’m not a phantom in your nightmare,” the old man informs Lorca, “you’re an apparition in my derangement.” So now Lorca is not a character in a book but an aspect of his senile older self—or perhaps both?
The older Lorca leaves, the younger muses for a time on the possibility that he is but a figment of someone’s insanity, or another man’s novel, and then The Ingenious Gentleman plunges toward its inevitable conclusion. Rojas imagines a bizarre version of the conversation that transpired between Lorca and his judge, the acting governor of Granada, Commander Jose Valdés Guzmán, then has him narrate his own execution. The latter is done as one frightful paragraph, for some reason lacking periods and commas, a strange mixture of duty, desperation, and, more than anything, resignation, where the tragic finality of death is painfully felt. Lorca returns to Vasari’s theater, he watches the author as he is visited at his home in America by another writer who surely must be Rojas. They have a rich philosophical discussion about Vasari’s manuscript, and then we are given one tiny hint as to Rojas’s intentions in having constructed this elaborate maze for us. In the book’s final paragraph Lorca recalls Don Quixote’s first meeting with Cardenio, an anguished lover who has fallen on such hard times that the Don at first refers to him as “The Ragged One.” Lorca finds this the most profound moment in all of literature: as the two madmen stare into one another’s eyes, Cardenio looks “to determine whether in those eyes he can detect himself, with the correct and essential clarity that knowing oneself alive demands.” He concludes that just as “Cervantes had determined his life as a writer,” he, Lorca, had determined what Vasari would write. So neatly the book seals shut: Lorca has invented Vasari, who has invented the Lorca who invents him.
In the end, The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell reveals itself to be frozen in a catastrophic collapse. In this modest depiction of hell, memories and dreams become indistinguishable—as Lorca muses at one point, “perhaps what had happened after his death could be reduced precisely to the dream of [Vasari's].” In a sense yes, for the shade of Lorca we see in Rojas’s book is whatever Rojas says it is. But in a sense no, for as Grossman points out in her introduction, Rojas has written a painstakingly researched, deeply evocative portrayal of the final days of the poet’s life. It is in the glance between dreams and memories, derangement and reason, history and myth, each surely recognizing itself in the other’s eyes, that we begin to find the truth of The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell.
Rojas, a Spaniard, has lived in the United States since 1960, yet there is virtually no trace of any residue that American fiction might have left on this 1980 novel. His willingness to combine meticulous biography with the paranormal, to put politics at the service of art, to turn metafiction in the direction of Proustian rumination, to draw so much from history but eschew any of the social objectives commonly ascribed to the novel, puts him into an entirely different category from even a writer like Don DeLillo. If there is any one recent school that this novel that defies category might be slated into, it would be the French Nouveau Roman, for its determination to build a completely realized, exquisite, miniature universe. The Ingenious Gentleman exists within a space that it has hewn out just for itself, and, though it is self-contained, its competing realities make it something that frustrates any one explanation. Whether you regard it as a hell, a dream, a derangement, or a metafiction, follow any path you will through this book, and you will find yourself arriving at a place you could not have anticipated. The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell makes for an elegant, oracular read the first time through, but even more it is a seductive, absorbing place to wander a second and third time. With each subsequent look, the stories within stories reveal further teeth, their paradoxes become ever more finely interleaved, the Spain of Rojas’s imagination wriggles with more life.
While it is true that Rojas has adeptly drawn from the traditions of both Borges’s textual labyrinths and magical realism’s search for a more compelling reality, it is the spirit of Quixote and the age he lived in that feels most germane to this book. Rojas has said that The Ingenious Gentleman emerged from a dream of Brueghel’s, Tower of Babel, and, indeed, it is the sort of a text from which a Renaissance painter might derive his next work. Its cavernous, cadaverous interior evokes a time before the novel was the dominant form of long fiction, an era that gave birth to immense, phantasmagoric canvasses and in which realms that we now construe as separate, or have ceased to believe in, were assumed to both be real and constantly intermingling.
Ultimately, I take The Ingenious Gentleman to be an exceedingly complex, densely interwoven meditation on the nature of perception, as well as a contemplation of how we attempt to give sense to that most obscure and incomprehensible of all judgments. More than any other qualities, Lorca is defined by regret and a sense of lack that comes from not being able to reconcile with the details of his life. If by the end of the book he manages to sublime past his situation, it is genuinely won and comes about through a superior understanding of time, history, and self than we commonly accord ourselves on this planet. Rojas proves himself to be a rare writer: one who is a master of the particular texture of the novel, yet is poet and seer enough to write a book about Lorca that lives up to the aesthetic terrain that the poet painstakingly created in his work.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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