Here lies the body of . . . Federico Garcia Lorca?
After decades of dispute the writer's resting place may soon be confirmed. But grudges are being exhumed too, writes Giles Tremlett.
The scalpels and test tubes are ready. So are the doctors, forensic scientists, DNA experts and anthropologists. Historians, poets, actors, professors of literature and many ordinary Spaniards, meanwhile, await with bated breath. But, 60 years after Spain's most controversial corpse was dumped in a makeshift grave alongside a one-legged teacher and two anarchist bullfighters, a row has broken out over whether to dig up and, once and for all, identify the remains of Federico García Lorca.
Spain's greatest 20th-century playwright - the author of Blood Wedding, The House Of Bernarda Alba and Yerma - lies, or is assumed to lie, in a shallow grave at the bottom of a mountain slope in the small town of Alfacar, overlooking his native city of Granada. "They say he clung to this olive tree as he died," says Juan Caballero, the mayor of Alfacar, in the small park that the town has set up around the spot. "They shot people here every morning at dawn for two months." Lorca was brought here on August 18th or 19th, 1936, a month after the right-wing military rebellion that marked the opening of the Spanish Civil War.
His assassins were members of one of the death squads of General Franco, the future dictator. The escuadras negras, or black squadrons, were systematically wiping out suspected left-wingers. The poet was just one of hundreds, if not thousands, dragged from their homes or prison cells and taken to the hills and ravines at the foot of the Sierra de Alfacar to be summarily and anonymously executed.
Lorca had refused to join a political party but publicly supported left-wing causes. His La Barraca student company, which took theatre to far-flung villages and town squares, was inspired by "Jewish Marxism", according to his ultra-right Falangist enemies. He had also signed manifestos denouncing right-wing dictators. Politics, however, may not have been the only reason for his murder. "I shot him twice in the arse because he was a maricón", or homosexual, one of his killers, a thug called Juan Luís Trescastro, reportedly boasted.
Lorca's violent death, at just 38, made him one of the most famous victims of a civil war that divided the world and, 60 years later, still has the power to divide Spaniards. Now, on the one hand, those already campaigning for a comprehensive exhumation of some 30,000 Franco victims scattered in similar graves around Spain see Lorca's case as a chance to set a precedent. If Lorca can be dug up why not the rest? They are backed by left-wing intellectuals who see, in Lorca, a symbol for the butchery, cultural and human, carried out in the name of Franco's doctrine of "national Catholicism".
On the other hand, however, lie the poet's six nieces and nephews, members of a wealthy family, some dedicated to heading publicly funded Lorca foundations, who are still seen in Granada as influential. They are backed by conservative intellectuals whose rallying cry is: "Let García Lorca rest in peace."
Ian Gibson, the Dublin-born writer whose detective work finally located Lorca's grave more than 30 years ago, disagrees. He has said that digging up the grave would provide final proof that this is, indeed, where the poet lies and show whether Lorca was beaten - or shot in the arse - before his death.
The objections cited by the nieces and nephews include worries that exhumation will inflame old political hatreds. They have also claimed, more bizarrely, that this may be a real-estate scam designed to build expensive summer homes on the grave site. Unfortunately, they now refuse to discuss the matter.
And that might be the end of it, except that Lorca is not alone. In fact, nobody has formally asked for him to be dug up and identified. The request for the grave to be found and the bodies in it identified has come, instead, from the families of the one-legged teacher, Dioscoro Galindo González, and one of the anarchist barandilleros - the secondary figures of the bullfight, who rush out and stick darts in the bull's back - buried alongside him.
Francisco Galadi, the 56-year-grandson of one of those barandilleros, says: "My grandfather Francisco was active against the fascists, and when they rebelled he was one of the first they went looking for. Our family were treated as apestados - pestilential - for years. My father never got a good job, and we had to go to schools run by priests and fascists."
He is indignant that Spain has been paying for the repatriation of the bodies of Blue Division members, the Spanish volunteers who fought for Hitler in Russia, while nothing is done for Franco's victims. "Gibson said that while there was a single mass grave left the civil war was not over, and I agree. . . . If one side can bury their dead with dignity then it is time the other side was able to as well."
At Granada University a team with experience of identifying people from mass graves around the world is ready to do the job of digging up Lorca's grave. Prof Miguel Botella says: "The emotion you feel is always the same. You think about how they suffered, about what they felt. It really affects you deeply, the infinite capacity of people to do damage to others." The team agrees that, if the Lorca family is opposed, it would be wrong to identify the poet's body, although that does not mean the others should not be disinterred from the site. Prof Jose Antonio Lorente, a DNA expert, says: "We have been burying people for thousands and thousands of years. It is one of our marks of culture. Only in extreme circumstances are people left without proper burial. This should be looked at from the point of view of human dignity."
In the end, some lines from Lorca's Poet In New York eerily predict what has been happening in the 70 years since his premature, violent death. "They combed the cafés, graveyards and churches for me / pried open casks and cabinets, / destroyed three skeletons . . ." Perhaps, just perhaps, the search will soon be over. ...