‘If God continues to help me and one day I become really famous, half the celebrity will be due to Granada.” So said the poet Federico García Lorca in 1929, as his literary star was on its meteoric rise.
Ian Gibson, the Dublin-born biographer of Lorca, might have been tempted to repeat those words during his own career, given how closely associated he is with both Granada and Lorca, its most celebrated son.
Now, the Andalusian city is acknowledging the work of the 80-year-old Irish writer, awarding him the Granada Gold Medal of Merit. For over 50 years, Gibson has explored the lives and championed the work of some of Spain’s most extraordinary artists and intellectuals. In the process he has also shone a light on the country’s fraught relationship with its own past.
Gibson’s liaison with Granada began in 1965, when he and his wife Carole visited the city when he was a post-graduate student at London’s Birkbeck College, writing a doctoral thesis on the roots of Lorca’s poetry. But his research led him down a slightly different path: the sinister story of the poet’s death, in 1936, at the hands of right-wing rebels as the civil war got under way.
As a result, Gibson wrote a ground-breaking account of the killing, The Assassination of Federico García Lorca. Written in Spanish, it was too provocative for the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, offering what was at the time a rare glimpse into the brutality of the regime, and was published in France.
Gibson, meanwhile, moved to Spain in 1978, living for years in a village near Granada, where he wrote what is widely seen as the definitive biography of Lorca. Since then, his literary output has included biographies of Salvador Dalí, the filmmaker Luis Buñuel and the poet Antonio Machado. Having gained Spanish citizenship in 1984, he now lives in the lively, multicultural Lavapiés district in central Madrid.
“I feel profoundly identified with Lorca and his work and his message and his attitude to Granada,” Gibson told me, shortly after he had been informed of the award. He invokes the city that was once home to Christians, Muslims and Jews, before the Catholic monarchs sought to “purify” Spain through forced conversions and expulsions in the late 15th century.
“[Lorca] is with the mixture, the mixed blood, mixed languages and mixed races and all that. That’s his Spain. So I identify very closely with that,” Gibson adds. “To get an award from the town council which represents Granada is very important – it’s moving for me.”
It’s also surprising, he admits. Gibson has been an outspoken critic of Spain’s political right, which has tended to resist efforts to dig up the country’s historical memory. The fact that the exact spot where Lorca was buried after his murder remains a mystery – despite Gibson’s painstaking attempts to identify it – is a case in point. Yet Granada city hall, under a right-wing mayor, has backed Gibson’s award.
But acknowledgment has now also come from Ireland, where Gibson’s profile had been relatively low. Recently, on the initiative of the Ambassador to Spain, Síle Maguire, Gibson received a presidential distinguished service award for expatriate Irish who make an outstanding contribution abroad. The ceremony meant Gibson made a rare visit to Dublin and although the Irish weather reminded him why he loves Spain, he insists the two countries have an inherent affinity.
“I’ve always maintained that the Irish are basically Spanish,” he says. “The Irish are Celts who went too far north and couldn’t get back.”
These awards coincide with the publication of a comic-book version of Gibson’s biography of Machado, both of which are titled Ligero de equipaje (Travelling light). Machado’s leftist sympathies meant he was forced into exile in France, where he died in 1939, the year Gibson was born. The Irishman believes Machado’s faith in dialogue is more relevant than ever in contemporary Spain, where tribal politics and the polarising Catalan independence issue have left the country mired in crisis.
Meanwhile, Gibson, typically, shows little sign of putting his feet up. He says he is “toying” with a book about his childhood and has also been asked to write a book about “Spain as I would like it to be”.
“It’s tremendous for this to happen at the symbolic age of 80 and for people to show some recognition for what one has done,” he says. “I think I have done honest work and that it’s been recognised is very satisfying . . . which doesn’t mean I’m not going to write any more.”