INTERVIEW: Dublin-born writer Ian Gibson talks to Bernard Adams about his love for Spain and life-long interest in Lorca, and why he feels Spain's stance on the war in Iraq was a mistake
Ian Gibson is about to publish his 20th book. The new work is a 400-page biography - written in less than a year - of the Nobel-prize-winning Spanish novelist Camilo Jose Cela. But this book, by one of Ireland's - and Spain's - most distinguished writers, is unlikely to be available in Dublin this year or next, for a very simple reason - it is written, and will be published, in Spanish.
Gibson lives in Restabal, a village in a green valley south of Granada, where huge, juicy oranges lie disregarded beneath trees already blossoming with next year's crop. Sitting in his elegant yet comfortable kitchen, Gibson explained how he came to feel more comfortable writing in Spanish than in English.
Oddly, the story begins in Newtown School, Waterford, in the 1950s where his modestly affluent Methodist parents sent their athletic son. The Dartry boy built himself a Charles Atlas physique, and starred at rugby, cricket - and French. "I began French quite early and could understand the subjunctive while everybody else in the class groaned in incomprehension," he says. He loved the language and duly studied it, along with Spanish, for his degree at TCD, where the Spanish department - under the Quixote expert E.C. Riley - was having a Golden Age.
At Trinity he transferred his linguistic affections decisively to Spanish and he became a university teacher - at Queen's and then at Birkbeck College in London. "The only way you can really learn a language is by teaching it, but after 10 years I got bored with the process of talking about Spanish writers and doing my PhD. I was working on Lorca's biography - trying to find out what he was like and why he was killed - interviewing dozens of people who had known the poet, working in newspaper libraries, and there came a moment when I just couldn't stop myself from writing it in Spanish." Because the book had originally been commissioned in English, this caused all sorts of problems with Gibson's American publisher. "The Brits were far better - Faber & Faber behaved like gentlemen, but there was no way that I could write it first in English." Nowadays, after nearly a quarter of a century in Spain, he is completely at home in both the country and the language. He writes a weekly column in the Andalusian edition of El Pais, Spain's premier newspaper and he frequently appears on talk shows on television.
"I've noticed that doing television pieces I feel more fluent in Spanish - nowadays I'm inhibited working in English because I've been away for so long. Gerald Brenan [the great English Hispanist\] once said to me: 'I don't think, if I were you, I'd write in Spanish, it'll affect your English.' Well, it's true. It's difficult to write in two languages. But learning Spanish and writing in it has been a very liberating experience for me. I find it difficult to write about Lorca in English - the words to describe the man and his work seem to come more naturally in Spanish." Earlier in the day Gibson had taken me on a mini Lorca tour - to the villages on the edge of the lush, fertile plain called the Vega where Federico spent his idyllic childhood before his wealthy parents settled in Granada itself. Gibson pointed out the village house where the Albas lived - the stern right-wing family on whom he loosely based his last play La Casa de Bernarda Alba - a work completed only months before local Fascists turned on the great poet, who was by then becoming a great playwright, and in August 1936 murdered him a few miles from where he was born.
The piece of work that Gibson cares about most is undoubtedly his Lorca biography. "I began investigating his death in my 20s and now I'm 64. He's had a huge chunk of my life and a great deal of love and care went into that book." Gibson has a deep sympathy with Lorca's great central theme - the suffering of the individual constrained by a repressive society. "His characters in his poems and plays are often, like Stephen Daedelus in Portrait of the Artist, trying to live freely and fully. Almost all of them reflect that search for freedom - and I identify with that very strongly because I feel that as an individual I was, for a time, also crushed by Christian repression. You can't spend years on a biography without in the process discovering something about yourself as well." Gibson is eternally tantalised by how little of Lorca the performer is left. The man who in the 1920s and 1930s could spellbind audiences at the piano, or with readings of his poetry, went largely unrecorded - just a few snatches of him playing the piano survive on disc. "Now someone in Buenos Aires says he has found a recording. It hasn't been made public yet, but if it's of Lorca reading a poem it will open new avenues. What did he sound like? Did he have a Granadine accent? Or did he speak purer Castilian when he was reciting? I'm desperate to find out." Gibson is clearly far from written-out on Lorca.
We turned to the motives behind his permanent move to Spain. He sees himself as more of a migrant than an exile. "I haven't rejected anything. I'm a Dubliner. That's always going to be my place, but it just happens I've moved further south. I've done my Irish thing in Spain." Nevertheless he's pleased to find, on the rare occasions when he goes back, that Ireland is now less frightened of "the Druids" - his description of a hierarchy which once prevented Catholic students from going to Trinity College. His only real regret is not having learned more Irish at school. At Newtown his Irish teacher was Roy Foster's dad - "a lovely man who did not succeed somehow in turning the key of the language for me". Above their house in Restabal, at the end of the delightful orange, lemon and pomegranate-filled garden, the Gibsons have built a swimming pool. Paddling in its chilly spring waters you can look up to the towering snow-capped Sierra Nevada.
The house - and a smaller one nearby which is let for holidays - have been designed by Gibson's talented English wife, Carole. I suspect that over many years her flair for domestic architecture, house-management and author-maintenance have been key factors in the rise and rise of el escritor irlandes.
It hasn't always been easy. In the 1970s, moving away from Britain and giving up the lifeline of an academic salary meant some hard times for the couple when their two children, Tracey and Dominic (who both now work in Madrid), were small.
Finances were rocky and Gibson was forced to drive himself hard and harder to conquer ever more punishing publishing schedules. He had to turn his hand to potboiling (for example, Un Irlandes en Espana, 1981; Lorca's Granada: A practical guide, 1992)) while he worked on his two huge, deeply-dug, footnote-laden biographies. His second, the life of Salvador Dali, was extraordinarily well researched over five years - telling the ultimately pathetic story of the exhibitionist painter who never forgot his intense relationship with Lorca. But even with an excellent BBC television series, which showed Gibson at his spontaneous best and coincided with the release of the book, the Dali biography did not sell prolifically.
Winner of no less than six literary prizes, Gibson's other major contribution to Spanish letters has been a whole series of books uncovering some of the more controversial episodes of the Spanish Civil War. In 1980, he did a life of the young lion of fascism, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera; he investigated the murder of the extreme right-winger Calvo Sotelo (1982); and he did a portrait of the loathsome Franco general Queipo de Llano, published in 1986.
There has also been another, quirky strand to his work - Victorian sex. The English obsession with flagellation interests him - thus The English Vice, published in London 1978. Later (2001) came the secret life of the 19th-century erotomaniac Henry Spencer Ashbee.
More recently, Gibson has been trying new forms - essaying an autobiographical novel (Viento del Sur, 2001), which he set in Cornwall but which really deals with his Methodist youth in Dublin. Then, in 2002, he experimented with fictionalised biography - in this case of the great Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario. Currently he's writing the libretto for an opera about Salvador Dali - in which Lorca, unsurprisingly, will have a major role. But his most cherished long-term project is another "big" book - a biography of the great Spanish lyric poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939). As an honorary Spanish citizen since 1984, Gibson feels part of the New Spain, but he's not at all pleased with Prime Minister Aznar's support of the Coalition attack on Iraq. "This country could be a remarkably useful bridge between the Magreb, the Muslim countries of North Africa, and Europe. This is because Spain had 1000 years of Christians, Jews and Moslems living together amiably in a society which produced a remarkable culture - in terms of poetry, philosophy and medicine and science - while Europe stumbled through the Dark Ages. Spain's involvement in this war has damaged us in the eyes of the Arab world. However, I hope that the damage will not be permanent because most Spanish people made it very plain that they were against Aznar's involvement." Gibson has now lived for more than a decade in Andalucia. With a population of eight million it is the biggest and one of the most successful of Spain's autonomias. He is enthusiastic about its socialist government and its enlightened attitude to the Magreb, but he feels there is room for more awareness of the region's and indeed the whole country's Arab cultural roots. "Arabic is hardly taught in Spain - incredible when you think that there are at least 5,000 Arabic words in Spanish. A sort of false historiography has been imposed by those who see Spain as an exclusively Christian country. The Muslims living in Spain in the 10th century were just as Spanish as the Christians, but the Christians expelled them - along with the Jews."
Visiting the astonishing Mezquita at Cordoba with Gibson it's not hard to see what he's talking about. The tall, strident Christian cathedral which has been plonked down right in the centre of the huge, calm, human-scale Mosque makes his point better than any words can.
When we were in Cordoba, an incident gave a little insight into Gibson's and Spaniards' attitudes to celebrity. At an excellent restaurant, where we arrived unannounced but were immediately given VIP treatment, he was sitting with Carole at a table eating tapas. It was mid afternoon and not very busy, but in the space of 15 minutes three strangers came up and spoke to him. (His wild, curly un-Spanish hair and his pugilist's face make him easy to recognise.) One required an autograph - which he got; the next just wanted to deliver a compliment and a polite handshake; but the third, a young man with a female companion, wanted more. He started to chat, saying how much he had admired Gibson's History of Mexico.
Giggling slightly, Gibson explained that the book was in fact written by Hugh Thomas, not by him, and that he was most assuredly not that patrician Oxbridge Hispanist.
This kind of incident happens quite frequently and Gibson is fairly philosophical about it all. "I like to be recognised. I've been here since the 1970s, I've been on television a lot and I push myself because if you don't do that nobody knows who you are and you don't sell any books. But it's very difficult sometimes because Spaniards have no shame about coming up to you in the street if they recognise your face. They feel they have to make that known to you - as though recognition was some great achievement on their part. And that can be very boring. But I've asked for it and I've got it - and it can be very gratifying if somebody comes up and says with sincerity how much reading my biography of Lorca has meant to them." Fame on this level has not, however, brought Gibson large rewards. "I think about the future and not having much of a pension. When I see a book about an Englishman coming to live in Spain, taking off and selling half a million copies, I must confess I do feel a bit envious. But writing's a risky business and I've written serious books with footnotes and they don't tend to make a fortune. But I'm happy though. They've been pretty good to me here."
• Ian Gibson has contributed a note on Federico Garcia Lorca to the programme of the current Abbey Theatre production of The House of Bernarda Alba
• Bernard Adams is a writer and journalist. His Denis Johnston: A Life was published by Lilliput in 2002