Monthly Archives: November 2013

“The moon is closer to us now than are the fig trees of our departed village”: Laughter and tragedy in Emile Habiby’s “Saeed the Pessoptimist”

The big man sent his own men to surprise me at my stall one noon. They led me off to prison after charging me publicly with having disobeyed the compulsory stay order. My going to Shafa Amr to buy melons, they said, had threatened the integrity of the state. Whoever, as they put it, transported red melons in secret could also carry radishes secretly and there was, after all, only a difference in colour between red radishes and hand grenades! And red was not, under any circumstances, the same as blue and white. With a watermelon, moreover, one could blow up a whole regiment if grenades were hidden inside it. “Don’t you see that, you mule?”

     “But I cut the melons open with a knife so the buyer can see,” the “mule” responded.

    “Oh! Knives too, eh?” they exclaimed. 

Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist brings Rabelais and Swift to Israel and Palestine. You cannot forbear to laugh, but the moment you pause to reflect, the laughter dissolves into the underlying darkness.  Innocence hangs like a thin film of translucent dew upon the surface, barely masking a savage indictment of the human condition just beneath (think of Voltaire’s Candide). The story follows the adventures of Saeed the Pessoptimist, a Palestinian who stays behind after the creation of the state of Israel, becomes an Israeli informer, and finds himself getting into one scrape after another with the authorities, while becoming more and more estranged from his sometime-countrymen. Filled with supernatural happenings, twisted chronologies and unbelievable denouements, the narrative tries to paint reality even while unmooring itself from reality; almost as though the only way to capture the bizarre actuality that is Israel/Palestine (labels are political) is by breaking with traditional narrative realism.

Saeed has been called an anti-hero by critics, but what truly strikes one about him is his passivity. Whether it is failing to kiss his lover goodbye as she is dragged away by the police for deportation, failing to stop his son from becoming a fedayeen, or failing to carve out any kind of independent existence for himself (a la Candide, before the end), Saeed never does anything. Things are done to him. In this way, he becomes a synecdoche for the larger Palestinian condition, as reflected in the works of so many other Palestinian writers. In Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, Palestinian inaction is symbolized by the passivity of three men as they roast to death in a truck; in Saeed, it is symbolized by Saeed’s overriding inability to act in any circumstance, especially when contrasted with the people in his life, lovers, sons and friends. Habiby makes a witty observation about this right at the beginning, before providing us an extended demonstration through Saeed’s character:

“The Arabs, that miserable teacher of ours concluded, always did thing quicker then – they thought faster than the earth moved around the sun – whereas they have now surrendered their power of thought to others … for the Arabs, so said this accursed teacher, would first act and then dream, not as they do now – first dream and then continue to dream.” 

Ghassan Kanafani once compared the Palestinian condition to people waiting on the shore for a boat that would never come. Saeed is a story – albeit hilariously told – of missed chances, delays, incompleteness, unfulfillment and disappointment. Saeed as a person is, of course, the greatest disappointment of the story, but it is also individual events that perennially fail to come to resolution. Consider, for instance, how the theme of the return to the homeland – something crucial to Palestinian writing – is dealt with by Kanafani, and by Habiby. In Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, the return is accompanies by a confrontation, a tragedy (of sorts), and definite closure. In Habiby’s account, however, what happens is that… nothing happens.

“What about our house?” I asked at last.

“They are occupying it.”

“Do you know who they are?”

You can see, my child, how dim my eyes are. And Europeans all look the same anyway. No one goes fishing anymore.”

    “Would they let me in if I visited our house?” I asked.

    “How should I know, my son?”

    She crossed herself. I said goodbye, feeling very uneasy that she had made that sign of the cross.

    When I reached the front of our house and saw laundry hanging out, my courage deserted me and I pretended to be taking a stroll along the seashore. I kept passing back and forth in front of our house. Each time I almost knocked on the door my courage left me.

    Eventually evening arrived. A woman emerged and began collecting the laundry. She stared at me and shouted something. I hurried away but saw a man of about her age come out of the house and help her collect the wash. I thought to myself: This must be a trick. Why else would a man bring in the family laundry? This was never done by my father, God have mercy on him, although my mother was always sickly and overworked.

Contra Kanafani, there will be no moment of epiphany, no discovery of meaning or truth, even though it is a tragic truth. And contra Khoury, even meaningful love is impossible for Saeed, because even that is defined by its interruptions and its incompleteness, at all times.

    Yuaad shook hands with me and bade me farewell. Then she brought her face close to mine and asked, “Did you kiss my mother before she left?”

    “No. They were standing between us.”

   “In that case you have missed the second kiss too.”

    Then she was gone. 

But if Saeed, even in his delay, is not Prince Hamlet and is never meant to be, ironically enough, the people he is closest to – lover, wife, son, friends – are his mirror images. Where Saeed turns informer, they join the revolution; where Saeed vacillates, they are constant; where he delays, they are decisive. And the contrast between characters is reflected in the contrast of styles. Saeed’s own experiences are portrayed with a savage, almost mocking (Swiftian?) humor, as he finds that being an informer is no guarantee of safety, ending up seeing the inside of a jail cell thrice, each time for absurd reasons. But it is when his supporting cast comes on stage, that the tone changes into something deadly serious. So, in one of the funniest scenes in the book, Saeed is arrested (for the first time) for following orders a bit too scrupulously, and putting up a white flag of surrender outside his Haifa home in the immediate aftermath of ’67. This is taken as a declaration that Haifa is an occupied city, and consequently, an act of rebellion. In prison, Saeed makes the mistake of quoting Shakespeare, and is soundly beaten for his pains. All grotesquely funny so far; and then, in his cell, he meets a Palestinian revolutionary, who considers him – wrongly, but by default – to be a comrade.

He healed my wounds by talking about his own. He kept widening that single tiny window in the wall until it became a broad horizon that I had never seen before. Its netted bars became bridges to the moon, and between his bed and mine were hanging gardens. I told him of myself, what I had always aspired to for myself. I did not want to lie, but I did not want to soil the majesty of the moment by speaking of personal details: these the jailers had stripped from me when they stripped off my clothes. Here we were, one naked man facing another. Would Adam ever have left Paradise of his own free will?”

The mask has dropped, and for all the time that it was on, the revelation hits home harder than it ever cold otherwise. The stylistic shifts – from Voltaire to Darwish, in an instant – are found again when his son Walaa is holed up inside an underground shelter, and speaks of speaking freely, longing, for once, “to be careless about what I say, because all my life you’ve told me to be careful“, insisting that he cannot wait any longer, that it is his generation that must resolve the issue, because “it is my generation.” The clarity and urgency of Walaa’s words and thoughts – again – put Saeed’s own dithering into sharper perspective than could otherwise be possible. Or again, consider this deliberate shift:

These settles, then, laughed good-naturedly when the following story about them spread. The elders of Zikhron Yaqub disagreed about the following problem: is it lawful for a man to sleep with his wife on the Sabbath or is the act a kind of work and therefore not lawful on that day? They went to the rabbi for a decision as to whether it was work or it was pleasure. The rabbi thought long and hard and then he ruled that it was pleasure. They asked him for his reasoning. He replied: “If I had ruled it to be work you would have give it to the Arabs of Fraydis to perform.”

    My, how we laughed at this story – Jacob because he hates the Ashkenazi Jews and I because he laughed.

    And who would be so unfair as to blame the people of Fraydis for owing their preservation to vintage wine? Who, after all, erected the tall buildings of this country, cut and paved its broad streets, dug the trenches and fortified the shelters? Who planted, plucked, and ginned the cotton, then wove it into clothes for the lords of Raghdan and Basman, palaces in the Amman, to wear so proudly. 

Like most other Palestinian writing, Saeed is a story of exile and about a lost homeland. Yet unlike the stories of Kanafani or Khoury, or the poetry of Darwish or Barghouti or Tawfiq Zayyad, there is one crucial difference: Saeed is an exile in his own home, and not on the outside looking in. The ambiguity, the doubt – the agony, even – is thus complex and often undefinable. As the book progresses, we see – we feel – Saeed’s growing estrangement both with his Israeli employers (and masters) and with the nascent Palestinian revolutionary movement. He is of both worlds, and of neither; understanding and understood by neither, liminal and homeless. Once again, then, he is simply caught up in the events, responding to them as they happen with the simple aim of survival. We cannot pity him because he has little moral fibre; and yet, we cannot condemn because we see ourselves in him, or what we would be like we we to face a situation of the sort – because who would be bold enough to predict their own heroism in the face of adversity? Habiby has painted a complex, ambiguous character, neither hero nor really anti-hero, someone who resists judgment and classification, but seeks – actively – our empathy. And more than that, perhaps, we are in no position to give.

I’ll end with an excerpt that once again reflects – fascinatingly – how very different Palestinian works are nonetheless – at bottom – concerned with very similar basic themes. The nakba, as we know, when it happened, was considered only  temporary situation by those who fled their homes in Mandatory Palestine. Of course, that temporary situation became permanent. That, however, did not stop many of the refugees from dreaming of a -now impossible – return to status quo ante. This conflict – between a generation that wants to restore a destroyed past, and one that wants to build a new future on its ruins – is explored repeatedly in Palestinian literature. It is the (implicit) debate between Said and Khaldun in Returning to Haifa. It is Younes, in Gate of the Sun, throwing away the oranges brought from old Palestine and exclaiming furiously, “The homeland is not oranges – the homeland is us!” And it is explored here as well, in one of the most moving passages of the book, with which I’ll close:

    “How can your brother believe that things will return to where they began?”

   “He got that idea from his elders; of his beginning an old man remembers only the prime of youth and so thinks fondly of it. Do you really know how the beginning was, uncle? The beginning was not merely sweet memories of pines over Mount Carmel, or orange groves, or the songs of Jaffa’s sailors. And did they really sing anyway? Do you really want to return to the beginning, to mourn your brother torn to pieces by the crane as he carved his living from the rocks. You want to do it all again, from the beginning?”

    “But your brother, Saeed, said they had learned from the mistakes of their predecessors and commit would not them again.”

    “If they had really learned, they wouldn’t have spoken at all of returning to the beginning.” 

    “You’re so young for so much wisdom, Yaad; wherever did you acquire it?”

    “From my long life that is still before me.”

    “Will you be leaving me?”

    “Water cannot truly ever leave the sea, uncle. It evaporates, then returns in winter in the springs and rivers. It will always return.”

This is widely regarded to be a classic of Arab literature, and deservedly so. Highly recommended.

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Filed under Emile Habiby, Middle-Eastern Writing, Palestine

The Mahabharata Project: Reading Epics Against the Grain – Mahasweta Devi’s “After Kurukshetra”

He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.” – Walter Benjamin

It is in the nature of literature – like all narrative – to promote certain voices, viewpoints and perspectives over others. And unless we’re talking about a self-consciously revolutionary text, the privileged voices will often reflect the social, economic and cultural hierarchies of the society that produces the work of literature in question. In the case of epics, this is probably even more true, because it is epics that – originating as they do, for the most part, in oral form – that reflect, or are meant to reflect – the constructed idea of a people, a nation  or even an Empire (to use Benedict Anderson’s phrase, “imagined communities). So it is in epics, perhaps, that we see the dichotomy between the articulated and the submerged voices most clearly. For instance, one of the central conflicts in the Iliad is between Agamemnon and Achilles over the possession of Achilles’ “meed of honour”, Briseis. Briseis’ own voice (notwithstanding the hack job that was the movie Troy!) is never heard: not when it is her body that is the subject of a tug-of-war, and not when Achilles and Hector fight their climactic duel before the walls of Troy. Then again, what would a Penelopiad, as a companion volume to the Odyssey, chronicling the travails of Penelope while Odysseus stayed away from home all those years, look like? We have no idea, because the Odyssey itself gives us precious little to go by. What happened to the Carthaginians after their iconic and charismatic leader burnt herself to death lamenting the departing Aeneas? What happened to the survivors of the Battle of Roncesvalles? Or to the survivors after all the carnage was over in Das Nibelungenlied? As we can see, there are two kinds of silences here: the one is the silence of characters critical to the story; and the other is the silence of all those who were profoundly affected by the events of the story, but are never seen in person.

Nonetheless, even with the epic, there is a respected literary tradition that seeks precisely to raise the submerged voices into consciousness. Euripides, for instance, wrote Hecuba, Andromache and Medeaeach of which viewed the pivotal attempts of a significant event (the Battle of Troy in the first two, the story of Golden Fleece in the third) upon those characters who are silent in the original story. In modern times, Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia tells the story of the princess over whom the critical battle that led to the foundation of Aeneas’ Rome was fought; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon does the same with Arthurian legend; Mark Twain’s partly-playful, partly-comic and partly-savage Eve’s Diary is a take on the Fall (perhaps as expounded by Milton). And in a curious twist, French absurdist playwright Jean Anouilh’s Antigone lets us, perhaps for the first time, here Creon’s voice.

Into this eclectic mix, we can add Mahasweta Devi’s After KurukshetraAfter Kurukshetra begins when the great Mahabharata war has ended, and follows the stories of those who are either not mentioned, or mentioned only to be ignored, in the original epic. The first story, Five Women, interrogates – inter alia – the themes of just war, imposed social roles, the epic hero, and enforced widowhood. The tone is set in the first two pages, that describe the aftermath of the battle: 

“They [the foot soldiers] were issued no armour. So they died in large numbers.”

The prostitute quarters, an essential part of war, now lie abandoned.”

“The chandals have no role in war. They arrive when the battle is over.”

The tone is set because, in single sentences, Devi highlights three sets of submerged voices: the ordinary soldiers who – as ever – have nothing to do with the casus belli, the prostitutes that seem to become a near-inevitable appendage to any large-scale war, and those who must clean up after the fighting’s done. But there is more: there are two key themes that characterize the classical epics – the amorality of war and the great hero. We are asked to suspend moral judgment because the heroic society, that forms the grist for the epics’ mill, simply had a very different code of values and morals than we do now. Large-scale slaughter over seemingly trivial causes simply wasn’t a problem for these men – their codes just saw it as a done thing, something as inevitable as the ebb and flow of the tides, as Lord Dunsany might say. But that leaves the question hanging: whose code of values, and whose code of morals? Of the warrior class? Yes, but what about those who were not of the warrior class? Did they too feel this way about the inevitability and amorality of war? Did Briseis and Penelope feel this way?

Devi’s five women certainly do not. The Mahabharata goes one further than exempting war from moral judgment – it emphatically asserts that the battle of Kurukshetra was a just war, prosecuted by the Pandavas against the Kauravas, who had unjustly deprived them of their kingdom. That simple binary is overturned in this brief conversation between the five women whose husbands, ordinary soldiers, have just died, and who cannot go back until the funeral pyres on the plain of Kurukshetra stop burning:

During such a disaster…

Disaster? What disaster? Huh, old woman? Was this some natural calamity? … We know of quarrels – jealousies – rivalries too. But such a war for just a throne? This, a holy war?! A righteous war?! Just call it a war of greed.”

By setting their teeth against the amoral neutrality of “disaster”, that equates war precisely to something like Dunsany’s ebb and flow of the tides, or the falling of leaves, or forest fires, the women place human – and for that, read male – responsibility at the forefront of everything, and question whether war can ever be just, if prosecuted only for power.

Another theme the epic thrives upon is the epic hero. Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Song of Roland, Lay of the Cid, Nibelungenleid, Ramayana, Mahabharata – every epic you can think of is choc-full of scenes where the hero descends on the battlefield, and slaughters a multitude of foot soldiers sent against him, before engaging an opposing hero in a pivotal, one-to-one battle. Through their wives, not only is the story of these soldiers brought to the forefront, but when they say:

“Day after day, the war heroes massacred hundreds of foot soldiers. Our men died in droves…”

You immediately link this up to the wry observation in the opening page about the lack of armor, and suddenly, all that death is not due to the greatness of the hero and the ordinariness of the soldier, but simply due to the callous negligence of an army that considers the lives of its soldiers expendable. The shift here is stark and brutal – just like the epic considers soldiers expendable, consigning faceless multitudes to their death at the hand of some hero every other chapter, the actual lives of soldiers are considered just as worthless by those who sent them to war.

The story continues with the five women being enlisted in the service of the Princess Uttara, who is about to give birth to a child; and “if Uttara bears a son, he will be King. It is imperative to keep Uttara in good spirits.”

This is where we have an added level of subtlety in the work. Because the submerged voices are never equally submerged, and even within the oppressed, there are the overseers. In the second part of the story, Devi develops a fascinating dynamic between three sets of characters: the five women, who have lost their husbands, and who are waiting to go back to the village once the plain of Kurukshetra cools down after the pyres have burnt themselves out; Princess Uttara, who is in every way a Marie Antoinette let-them-eat-cake royal; and Madraja, the majordomo, who hails from the same background as the five women but, having served at the court all her life, finds herself in a strange, undefinable liminal position, sometimes occupying one perspective, sometimes another, but never one entirely (the eternal fate of the rootless exile?). In that interaction, the blissful unawareness that the nobility has of the lives of is subjects becomes starkly clear, Uttara’s evident innocence and absence of malice only making the impact sharper. Explored also as is the oppressiveness of enforced widowhood (“In ihalok, in this world of ours, widows have no right to happiness. “) vis-a-vis an ethic that celebrates transience because it can afford no other philosophy, because who, otherwise, will harvest the next lot of crops? (After a terrible calamity, the sun always rises. Even after this dreadful war, Nature has not stood still.); and finally, a re-emphasis of the equanimity with which the nobility views war, because (again) it can afford to (But it was a dharmayuddha, a righteous war.), vis-a-vis the true sufferers of war, who reject it passionately, but are sidelined both in the decision to go to war, and the subsequent memory of it as recorded in epics (So many hundreds of widows! So many homes in which mothers have lost their sons.)

And yet, Devi is careful enough to avoid the trap of simple reductively. This is not about cloistered palace and idyllic village. When the women, at the end, leave, we know that they are going back not only to a life of toil, but to an enforced second marriage, one that they accept with an equable resignation, but conspicuously not with any great joy; and no amount of work-songs can rid us of the lingering unease about that. Much like the whole story, the ending rejects any easy conclusion; indeed, it rejects any sort of conclusion at all. And that is the point.

I will not here analyze the other two stories as closely; they deserve to be read in their own right. Souvali explores the complex dynamic between the classes, the struggle for acceptance, and loneliness and solidarity. Kunti and the Nishadin is perhaps the best story of the lot: dealing with the themes of choice and freedom (Karna is the only one of my sons whose father I took of my own free will.), the sanitizing role of language, myth and narrative (Only the wars of the victorious are known as dharmayuddha), and above all of guilt and responsibility, the ending plumbs the very depths of feeling that a reader can experience.

After Kurukshetra, then, is an essential companion to The Mahabharata. Yet not quite like a Dinkar gloss on Karna’s life in the Rashmirathi, taking an established hero and telling his tale. It is an essential companion because by telling us the stories that are not told, not only does it tell them for their own sake (which it certainly does), but in doing so, it holds up a mirror to the Mahabharata, and the principal themes, and voices are reflected, as though through a glass, darkly. For that alone, it deserves to be read, and read again, and again.

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Filed under Mahasweta Devi, The Mahabharata Project

“We’ll drown ourselves in a sea of mourning”: Women and Greek tragedy in the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca

The phrase “moral luck” seems a contradiction in terms. Our intuitions tell us that our actions can be evaluated as moral or immoral only insofar as we choose to act thus-and-so, actions for which we are, in a sense, responsible. A person who always chooses correctly, therefore, cannot ever do the wrong thing, can never be immoral.

Much of Greek tragedy is spun out of this very question. In her book, The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum locates the basis of Greek tragedy in a belief in the irreconcilable conflict of values: if Orestes kills his mother, he is guilty of the crime of matricide. If Orestes doesn’t kill his mother, he is guilty of failing in his son’s duty to avenge his father’s murder. So while Orestes ostensibly has a choice between killing or sparing his mother, in another sense, he has no choice at all – whichever way he chooses, he will commit a grave moral crime – and this, precisely, is the tragedy (reflected in the Athenian jurors voting to a tie when judging him for finally killing his mother). Often, in life, situations will arise, entirely beyond our control, in which we are obliged to choose between two options, both of which involve us in committing wrongful actions. These are the tragedies of our everyday, quotidian lives.

Federico Garcia Lorca’s Rural Trilogy – the three tragic plays, Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, called so because they are all set in rural Spain, and written in the 1930s – subvert the ideas of tragedy and choice in interesting ways. Each of these plays have their principal characters act in ways that we would normally tend to view as quintessentially motivated by free choice – but each time, Lorca demonstrates how, for individuals existing within oppressive social structures, freedom loses its meaning, and every choice is as compelled and constrained as the song of a caged bird.

Blood Wedding, the first of these plays, is the most striking, because the language of choice runs explicitly through it. Blood Wedding deals with the explosive clash between conventional, clan-orchestrated marriage alliances on the one hand, and individual passion on the other. On the morning of her wedding, the bride’s old lover – himself now a married man – visits her, and she realizes that:

I can’t listen to you. I can’t listen to your voice. It’s as though I’d drunk a bottle of anise and fallen asleep wrapped in a quilt of roses. It pulls me along – and I know I’m drowning – but I do on down.

Apart from the stark imagery, this speech is notable because it sums up the ambiguity that is latent in the play – the question of whether the bride is truly responsible for her actions, or whether she is being driven by forces beyond her power to control or master. The speech has hints of both. The scene plays out further when the two decide to run away on the night of the wedding, setting the stage for the tragedy:

Bride: Oh what lamenting, what fire/ sweeps upward through my head!/ What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue?

Leonardo: What glass splinters are stuck in my tongue!/ Because I tried to forte you/ and put a wall of stone/ between your house and mine./ It’s true. You remember?/ And when I saw you in the distance/ I threw sand in my eyes./ But I was riding a horse/ and the horse went straight to your door./ And the silver pins of your wedding/ turned my red blood black./ And in me our dream was choking/ my flesh with its poisoned weeds./ Oh, it isn’t my fault – / the fault is the earth’s -/ and this fragrance that you exhale/ from your breasts and your braids. 

I too would want to leave you/ if I thought as men should./ But wherever you go, I go./ You’re the same. Take a step. Try./ Nails of moonlight have fused/ my waist and your chains.

It would be simple, at one level, to view this merely as a standard instance of blind-love-overriding-better judgment. But that is not the tone of the play, and that is evidently not how Lorca looks at it: the overwhelming sense one gets is that a culture or society that ceaselessly denies passion the chance to express itself, only makes it inevitable that it will burst out in violence. The bride and Leonardo’s flight, then, is not so much as an individual choice, than the inevitable culmination of human emotion and human need breaking through the dam of conformity.

How culture dictates consciousness forms a central part of the second play, Yerma, which is about a wife who remains childless just because her husband – an ambitious farmer – couldn’t be bothered with it. But Yerma has been trained to believe that a childless mother is, just by existing, a revolt against the very order of things. How she could be so brutally socialized is revealed at various points in the play, perhaps rather eloquently in this para:

Girls like me who grow up in the country have all doors closed to them. Everything becomes half-words, gestures, because all these things, they say, must not be talked about.

And:

Men get other things out of life: their cattle, trees, conversations, but women have only their children and the care of their children.

And once again, we are left with the feeling that the choice to have a child, something that we would all consider to be essentially a matter of free choice, here has acquired the imperative of a command. At a later point in the play, one of the characters says: “the ditch in its place, the sheep in fold, the moon in the sky, the man with his plough”; and that, indeed, I think is the overarching theme of these plays – a society that loves to classify, categorize  and fix places for every individual. Lorca’s plays are precisely when people refuse to accept the place in the hierarchy that has been fixed for them; not because they rebel consciously, but because logically, their suppressed passions and emotions will seek an outlet; and through those actions is tragedy generated.

The last play in the trilogy, The House of Bernarda Alba, is somewhat different. In his portrait of the stifling atmosphere of a cloistered house, ruled over by an iron-willed matriarch, it is oddly reminiscent of Naguib Mahfouz’ Palace Walk (only, the matriarch replaces the patriarch – a point I shall come to later). The House of Bernarda Alba is probably that play of the trilogy in which not only is the suppression of natural passions the most intense (and thus, the eventual tragedy seemingly the most inevitable), but it is also the one in which social structures and cultural hegemony are given their most express treatment. Bernarda pulls no punches, therefore, when she says, “Needle and thread for women. Whiplash and mules for men. That’s the way it has to be for people who have certain obligations.” She is even more intransigent when it comes to denying the passions, claiming that among all her daughters, “none of them has ever had a beau, and they’ve never needed one! They get along very well.” Such extreme suppression must necessarily meet with extreme reaction – in Adela’s passionate protest, “My body will be for whomever I choose,“, and in the eventual unfolding of the tragedy. When Adela says of Pepe el Romano, “Looking into his eyes, I seem to drink his blood in slowly”, it is excess matching excess, in an almost Newtonian-esque connection of inevitability between action and reaction. 

The ambiguity over what, precisely, counts as choice, and whether it really is free, is played out in the form of oppressive social structures placing individual actions in a mirror-image of themselves. So, for instance, the fundamental lack of control that women have over their destinies because of the social system into which they are born is reflected in the exchange between Amelia and Magdalena: “To be born a woman’s the worst possible punishment.” “Even our eyes aren’t our own.” And it’s this precise rhetoric of the absence of control that is then reflected in the individual act of rebellion: “I didn’t want him to [embrace me],” says Adela. “It’s as if I were dragged by a rope.” Coercive social structures compel – nay, force – an equally agency-devoid act of revolt – the latter, in a sense, determined by the former as reaction by action. Where, then, do choice and responsibility and fault and blame come into this? Lorca wisely seeks to provide no answer, but only leaves us – as the best writers invariably do – with a haunting sense of doubt, incompleteness and mistrust of our firmly held convictions. The last, climactic scene of the tragedy, in particular, is of special dramatic brilliance.

A different point. Two out of three plays in the trilogy bear the names of their female protagonists – Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. That, in itself, is not rare enough to command much surprise: Antigone, Clytemnsestra, Hecuba, Medea, Dido, Salome, Hedda Gabler – are all examples. But what is striking about Lorca’s rural trilogy is that in each of these plays, the climactic act of the drama – the one that sets up the tragedy, so to speak – has been performed by women, and not by women acting as proxies for men (Henry VI, Macbeth), or women acting out of some compulsion that reinforces the patriarchal paradigm overall (e.g., Antigone and Dido); Lorca’s women, however, categorically act as themselves and for themselves; that is not to say that men are barred, but their role in the decision-making process is negligible. In this, Lorca is by no means unique (think of Medea and A Doll’s House), but I think what he is unique in is portraying both the social structures that are designed to destroy women’s freedom, and the struggle of individual women to rebel against those structures by consciously breaking the deepest and most preciously held societal convictions of this sort. Whether they do it entirely freely or not is another question, but Lorca’s women exist in themselves, and not in relation to men. For that, for striking imagery and great atmosphere building, and for an unusually complex exploration of the ideas of choice, freedom and autonomy – may Lorca be continued to be read for many years to come. 

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Filed under European Writing, Federico Garcia Lorca, Spain