Poet dishonored in own country, till now

At exactly 5 p.m., the village boys open a net bag full of pigeons and prod the heavy birds into flight. The birds meander aimlessly into the sky, except for one, almost completely white, which takes off on a straight-edge trajectory.

And so, with a homely gesture, begins the annual celebration of the birth of Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered near here 48 years ago.

Garcia Lorca is known around the world as a poet of uncommonly powerful imagery, whose stunning use of language has stimulated legions of translators and students of literature. His plays (chiefly ''Yerma'' and ''Blood Wedding'') are frequently produced in dozens of countries and have been translated into ballets and used as the inspiration for musical scores.

In Spain, it's been quite a different story - until now. This year's celebration comes at a time when Spain's most famous 20th-century poet appears to have completed a journey from official obscurity to something resembling national sainthood.

It has been a journey of inches.

The first celebration, eight years ago, was kept under tight control by the authorities. Only 30 minutes was allowed for the whole affair (as opposed to the four-plus hours given over to the fiesta today).

The circumstances of Garcia Lorca's death in 1936 - he was dragged from his home by Franco's civil-war troops, kept in confinement for several days, shot and thrown into an unmarked grave - made him an embarrassment to the Franco government, which wanted him considered just another early casualty in the war.

Garcia Lorca became a romantic figure to leftists in many countries. And while the government had effectively wrapped the life and works of this quintessentially Spanish poet in obscurity in his own country, the rest of the world eagerly unwrapped every shred of Lorca-ana it could find.

Now, with the gradual liberalization of the Spanish government since the death of Franco in 1975, Garcia Lorca has been reborn in his homeland.

As the Spanish government finishes taking the wraps off his name and works, there is a sudden spurt of activity in the literary world of the United States and elsewhere. New Directions Publishing Corporation is working on a translation of the complete poetry. Christopher Maurer, who translated selected prose of Garcia Lorca, is now pulling together a translation of letters written to him. Other projects are on the horizon.

Isabel Garcia Lorca, the poet's younger sister, is not greatly moved by the government's belated recognition.

''He doesn't need the recognition of anybody,'' she says, as she sits in the cool parlor of the family farm, Huerta de San Vincente, in the province of Granada. Then, she adds with some overstatement, ''He has already been recognized all over the world as the leading figure in Spanish letters since Cervantes.''

Senorita Garcia Lorca stands guard over the historic memorabilia of her brother's life. She is president of the government-approved foundation that fosters his name and work. And she has acted as intermediary in arrangements with the provincial authorities to sell this farm, which will be made - along with the piece of land where he was shot and buried in nearby Viznar - into tourist attractions.

The poet Giner de Los Rios, a friend of Garcia Lorca's, remembers him as ''full of grace, a spectacular soul ... who lived life very intensely'' and who was never spoiled by his phenomenal fame.

Students of the local school have mounted newspaper clippings and photographs. Dozens of people who have come to town for this celebration pore over them. In the evening, a crowd of farming folk and the literary curious listen to lectures on poetry and art and then enjoy music, as a dozen pigeons make swift circles in the nimbus of the setting sun.

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