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The power of love, metaphor & death

Ananda Sukarlan

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, November 4, 2016  /  03:42 pm
The power of love, metaphor & death

Miguel de Cervantes (

The year 2016 is a significant literary year for Spain. 

For Spain, this year marks two great writers’ death anniversaries — the 400th of Miguel Cervantes (1547-1616) and the 80th of Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936).

It is for this reason the Cervantes Institute, with the support of the Spanish Embassy, invited me to celebrate this event in Indonesia by composing music based on works by these two great writers, to be sung by the rising young soprano Mariska Setiawan during the recent Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. 

While Lorca has long been cherished by the hearts of Indonesian literature, Cervantes is still not — and that could be an indication of how Spain has missed the opportunity to use his name and works as a cultural asset during these 400 years. 

The Spanish language is not an excuse: Leo Tolstoy, Goethe, Dante Alighieri, even Rumi are more known worldwide while their languages are much less spoken on this planet. 

(Read also: A day in the legendary Shakespeare and Company bookstore)

It is also a curious coincidence that both Cervantes and Shakespeare died only a day apart: the Spaniard on April 22 and the British on the 23rd, 1616.

Shakespeare has gone Hollywood several times, he is everywhere in classical music, ballets, operas and everyone on the streets quotes: “To be or not to be, that is the question” besides his other famous quotes, while Cervantes’ fame would only lie in Don Quixote. 

Needless to say, tourists going to the UK would make an effort to go to Stratford-upon-Avon to be at Shakespeare’s birthplace, while Alcala de Henares has not yet established its name as a tourist destination as Cervantes’ town of birth — even if it’s much more accessible since it is so close to Madrid than Stratford from London. 

Lorca is a different case, and his dramatic death might contribute to his popularity. 

Two great Indonesian writers who studied, translated and were influenced by Lorca were Ramadhan KH (who translated the novel The House of Bernarda Alba in the 1950s and then followed by other works) and Sutardji Calzoum Bachri who explored his repetition techniques, such as in the poem Romance Sonambulo where Lorca used the word verde (green) repetitively in different aspects. 

Green, I want you green/Green wind. Green branches/The ship out on the sea/and the horse on the mountain/With the shade around her waist/she dreams on her balcony/green flesh, her hair green/with eyes of cold silver/Green, I want you green. 

It was Hasan Aspahani (b. 1971) in the beginning of this millennium that brought Lorca back to the Indonesian poetry scene. He translated his poems not to be published, but for personal studies although he uploaded them on his blog, which (accidentally?) became very popular. 

As Aspahani is not fluent in Spanish, he investigated several translations existing in English (made easier by the internet). He himself has declared he is a “traitor”: he did not translate them truthfully, but made his own rhymes. “If you want a translated poem to have beauty, you should be a traitor to the original poem”. 

(Read also: Accepting award, Murakami warns against excluding outsiders)

But the most Lorcian poet in Indonesia, according to Aspahani would be WS Rendra in his early works. Lorca has brought out the lyrical and metaphorical qualities in Rendra. 

They both fell in love with the landscape of hills, birds, trees, grass and leaves. Most importantly, they were very much attached to their own music: Rendra with the Javanese children’s folk songs, Lorca with Flamenco dancers and musicians and even its instruments. Rendra also learned how the Spaniard used metaphors, such as in the latter’s “The Six Strings” (one of his few poems about the guitar) that I set to music for this occasion: 

The guitar/makes dreams cry/The crying of lost souls/escapes from its round mouth/And like the tarantula/it weaves a huge star/to catch sighs/that float on its black wooden tank.

This would then influenced poets such as Subagio Sastrowardoyo, and I am sure Sapardi Djoko Damono too, though he never mentioned it.

An important aspect of Lorca’s life would be his open homosexuality and his relationship with Salvador Dali, which complicated their lives during the Franco dictatorship. This contributed to his arrest and assassination by the right wing dictator in 1936 according to his biographer Stainton, although another biographer Ian Gibson stated it was also as part of a campaign of mass killings intended to eliminate supporters of the Marxists. 

Lorca and Dali met when they were students in Madrid in 1922. Dali could not be open about it in their time, but he did admit to their close friendship “although we never had sex” as he admitted more than once to his biographers. 

Yet there was the beautiful “Ode to Salvador Dali” by Lorca, from which I took 3 stanzas and set it to music too. It is a clear and poignant love letter to the Catalan painter, who responded it with a love letter recently discovered, with a sketch referring Lorca as “my Saint Sebastian” who was tied up on a beach in Ampurias, where Dali lived.

In the music world, Lorca has inspired many composers far beyond Spanish borders and of Hispanic backgrounds. 

Lorca himself was a musician; he studied music and even wrote some songs in his teenage years, considering a career in music and closely befriended the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, working together in some productions. His first prose works such as Nocturne, Ballade and Sonata clearly drew on musical forms. 

Composers who have set his works to music include the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich, the Finnish Einojuhani Rautavaara, the Mexican Silvestre Revueltas and the American George Crumb (in more than five works). My “Two Songs on poems by Garcia Lorca” would be the most recent modest contribution to this list, based on “Oda a Salvador Dali” and “Las Seis Cuerdas” mentioned above. 


The writer is a composer and pianist, who translated all fragments of the poems truthfully, but claimed them as “unpoetically”.

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