‘The true struggle is with the Duende.‘ Federico García Lorca
Ignacio Ramirez Rivera quickly became Nayo thanks to his older sister who deliberately simplified his name in response to his arrival in her world. Although this diminutive form was unusual, soon Nayo’s parents were fondly referring to their baby in this way, pleased a bond had already developed between their two young children. Angelita, the little girl responsible for her brother’s title, herself had a name with a lot to live up to.
Duende, a novel set in Spain in the period leading up to the Spanish Civil War, begins in 1900 with the birth of Nayo in Barcelona. In 1914, he falls in love with a boy called José who becomes his life-long partner at a time when homosexuality was outlawed. The illicit nature of their relationship becomes a means of exploring the nature of love per se and how it is possible to co-exist in a hostile environment.
The Spain in which the two men live and breathe is deeply antagonistic, riven by religious, political and social tensions. In contrast, and reflecting wider European trends, Spain was also characterised by a vibrant artistic and cultural scene, and Dalí, Ortega y Gasset and, most significantly, Federico García Lorca are real-life figures who appear as characters within this book.
Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) was a homosexual writer and poet murdered by fascists at the start of the Spanish Civil War. He becomes a friend to the two main characters in my novel as their professional and personal interests coincide. Nayo is an artist and José a philosopher, and thus art, philosophy and literature become overarching themes.
However, they become more than simply themes as they permeate every single aspect of the story, being integral to plot, structure as well as characterisation. In conjunction with the tumultuous landscape in which the action occurs, these elements form the momentum and impulse driving the narrative forward. And these elements combine in the title of the novel which, deriving from Spanish folklore and mythology, defies any adequate translation into English. Here’s some descriptions taken from the novel itself:
‘Duende. Something primal, living, shuddering and vibrant. Duende which evokes tears through its music and its poetry. Duende which comes from the depths of the body through the roots of the earth and shakes the entire universe. The aspiration to perfection is a struggle with the duende and José thought of Nietzsche’s concept of the Ubermensch as the ongoing quest to overcome the limitations of the self. Like Nietzsche’s Will to Power, duende encompasses the the death wish as the duende swoons and dances in its arms.’
‘Duende, which only appears when there’s the possibility of death. Duende. That most vital struggle, when touching death is knowing, and truly knowing, life. The fucking wrenching ache, the agony of living, loving, dying at the same time.’
‘José thought of Federico’s premise that all that has dark sounds has duende and knew from his own experience that art, in each and every medium, stemmed from the need to express not only the inexpressible but those emotions which cut so deep that in the act of articulation, the artist writhes in pain. Release has its aftermath in resolution or destruction or, perhaps, in both.’
In the context of 1930s Spain, resolution of longstanding conflicts came through destruction in the form of the Spanish Civil War.
My own story, which chronicles the lives of two men in their ongoing journey to make sense of their experiences, comes to an end as the civil war begins. For me, as the author, this was a momentous journey as I, too, struggled to comprehend the seemingly irreversible sequence of events that resulted in such widespread and barbaric devastation. However, in the process of writing Duende, I became intensely aware that it was the forces of love that propelled the narrative forward. It was the forces of resistance to increasing brutality. It was the voices of humanity which allowed me to keep writing even when all hope seemed irrevocably lost.
The fact that the precise love at the heart of my story was of itself a form of resistance to prevailing morality served to reinforce its humanity and its universal implications. At this point, it’s pertinent to let the characters speak for themselves:
‘It’s always been about connecting thought and feeling,’ said José. ‘For me, that’s what it’s always been about. And at its finest, philosophy does this. At its best, philosophy becomes poetry and vice versa. Take Nietzsche, for example. When we were talking tonight, a phrase from Nietzsche kept going round and round in my head. I know he’s Rubén’s favourite so maybe that triggered it but I couldn’t get the words out of my mind. Nietzsche said that whatever’s done for love always occurs beyond good and evil. Whatever’s done for love transcends these fundamental dichotomies.’
‘What Nietzsche’s referring to,’ said Nayo, ‘me and you have found that place so many times. We’ve been there and back again. Forget politics. Forget philosophy. We’ve stood there, we’ve tasted it and we know what it feels like.’
José looked at Nayo and nodded.
‘But we also know the ground we walk on can shift,’ he said. ‘For us, it has to. Many times, we’ve been forced to put up barriers in order to defend the very territory we wanted to sustain. That’s how it’s been and that’s how it is. We’ve inhabited a space that’s never been permanent. It can’t be. Because it’s simply not allowed.’
‘But the fact is that we’ve found it,’ persisted Nayo. ‘Even when its truth can only be revealed when we’re as certain as we can be that no threats can interfere, the fact we know of its existence, that we’ve lived and breathed within this is what matters. The fact we’ve been there and can go back there any time we need to, that’s what counts.’