The poet, essayist, playwright and politician Jorge Zalamea Borda was born in Bogotá (Colombia) in March 1905, where, at a very young age, he became an active and valued example of the culture of the first half of the 20th century. Committed to the cause of the poor, he wrote poetry, plays and essays, and achieved notoriety as a translator of the French Nobel Prize winner Saint-John Perse. He died in 1969 in the Colombian capital. Zalamea started as a journalist when he was only 16 years old and at the age of 20 he toured Central America and Mexico as an actor in a theatrical company. From that period (1927) is his first play, The Return of Eve.
In 1928, he began to work as a politician and diplomat. That year he travels to Spain as advisor to the commercial legation of Colombia and meets Federico García Lorca, who had just published Gypsy Ballads in the Revista de Occidente editions of José Ortega y Gasset, a book that unleashed furious criticism from his hitherto friends at the Residencia de Estudiantes (Students’ Residence) Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
The preserved correspondence they exchanged -five letters written by Federico in 1928- allows us to reconstruct a close friendship full of complicity. The relationship between the two lasted until 1933, the year in which Zalamea exchanged Spain for London to take up the post of vice-consul.
Zalamea and Federico met for the last time in 1932 at the home of the composer Gustavo Pittaluga’s mother-in-law in Canillejas (Madrid). Looking back on that day, he refers to a sudden crisis of melancholy of Lorca and a phrase: “We are surrounded by the dead! We are stepping on the dead! And I can’t stand it!”.
Zalamea tried to influence Federico to read the avant-garde novel Ulysses by James Joyce, as he recounts in a remembrance text of a few pages entitled Federico García Lorca, man of divination and vaticination dated 1966. Although the poet resisted the reading, he was able to improvise a dissertation from the data that Zalamea himself had supplied him a few days earlier, in which he revealed “lights, shadows, perspectives that those of us who had already read Ulysses had not seen”.
Lorca’s first letter, dated 1928 in Granada, contains numerous personal confidences: “The famous man has the bitterness of carrying his chest cold and pierced by deaf lanterns directed on him by others”. The letters allow us to deduce that both were distressed by personal problems of a different nature, but equally painful. The second letter, which he sent him a few weeks later, contains a fragment of the Ode to the Blessed Sacrament that he would dedicate to Manuel de Falla: “You cannot imagine what it is to spend whole nights on the balcony watching Granada at night, empty for me and without the slightest consolation of anything”.
In the third letter, written in September, he confided to him about the terrible weeks he had lived through. “I also had a bad time. Very bad […]. All day long I have a factory poetic activity. And then I throw myself into the man, into the pure Andalusian, into the bacchanal of flesh and laughter”. Federico describes to him the Huerta de san Vicente, from where he sees “the most beautiful panorama of mountain ranges (by air) in Europe”.
In spite of the constant invitations to visit Granada and the suggestive descriptions that he makes (“the Alhambra and the gardens are in their right poetic point”) the visit did not take place. The last missive is dated October 1928, but the two met again at an estate in Canillejas (Madrid) in 1932, invited by the mother-in-law of the composer Gustavo Pittaluga, months before the Colombian left for his new diplomatic assignment in London. From that day Zalamea refers to an abrupt melancholy crisis of Lorca and a phrase: “We are surrounded by dead people! We are stepping on the dead! And I can’t stand it!”.
Lorca’s assassination surprised him in Bogota: “I have made sure that friendship can also be stronger than death, as is the case of mine with that rare human example that was Federico: genius of Spain”.
Zalamea’s political career took a turn for the worse in 1948 with the assassination of the liberal party leader Jorge Eliécer, which led him to exile in Buenos Aires where he published El gran Burundún-Burundá ha muerto (The great Burundún-Burundá is dead), among other works.
In 1968, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. While the award ceremony was taking place, Soviet tanks invaded Prague. His last civic act, before his death on May 10, 1969, was to send a strong protest to the Russian authorities.