Lit Matters: The Cranes of Spain

by Andrea Dupree

Afternoons Tomás, Sonya, and I would wander down to the plaza for a café con leche. We’d sit out in the shade on the cobblestone patio, watching a small Spanish man twisting wire into little sculptures. A few expert turns of his pliers and a skinny wire-man on a bicycle materialized. Next, a wiry bird perched on a tree. A man on a horse tilting at a windmill. He created these things with dizzying speed and sold them to tourists at a decent pace.

All around us, Spain was flourishing. This was in the early nineties. The country had within the last half-dozen years joined the European Economic Community, and Americans were mourning a golden era in which the dollar held up mightily to the peseta. Such days were long gone.

This was of no consequence to some kids I studied with, but I had to watch every penny. Over the summer, gearing up for this, I’d worked two jobs and spent as close to nothing as I could. I planned to travel for a few months when the semester was over. The thought of being unemployed for seven months, of just studying, of just traveling, filled me with literary optimism. I’d channel this idle time into my writing!

Back in the Plaza, Tom and Sonya indulged my parsimony (they shared freely their churros and Camel Lights) while I scribbled away in notebooks. At the Fundación Ortega y Gasset, we were studying Cervantes, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Antonio Machado, and Mario Vargas Llosa, and the effort of reading their work, trying not to translate but just absorb it, made my head ache. For breaks we took the train into Madrid. Everywhere we went there were cranes, their looming forms casting angular shadows across the city streets and the plains. We joked that I’d write a book when I turned 25—far enough in the future to allow for my talent and ambition to manifest. It would be called The Cranes of Spain, and it would capture a young, cash-strapped American, wandering the streets of a Spain that was thriving by comparison. America was in decline, we all understood, and I took pride in personifying its wretchedness.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that I didn’t write that book. What I imagined would be as simple as twirling wire into Don Quixote—no, it wasn’t. Soon I went back to California to resume school and the jobs that would quash my literary potential (ha ha), and years went by.


A while back, Sonya brought up The Cranes of Spain. I told her about Ben Lerner’s young-American-in-Spain novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. Set a dozen years after our afternoons in the plaza, it took me right back to that place, to my half-understanding of everything, to that charged feeling of wanting so badly to capture in words what I was experiencing.

Lerner’s book opens with Adam Gordon, a young American on a poetry fellowship in Madrid. He’s fallen into a routine of waking up, drinking coffee, smoking hash, and wandering to the Prado to view Roger Van der Weyden’s painting, Descent from the Cross. “I was usually standing before the painting within forty-five minutes of waking,” he says, “and so the hash and caffeine and sleep were still competing in my system as I faced the nearly life-sized figures and awaited equilibrium.”


One day when Adam shows up at the Prado, someone else is standing in front of the Van der Weyden: “[F]or a moment I was startled, as if beholding myself beholding the painting…. I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t.”  As he’s trying to think of what to do—he’s lost without his ritual—the man bursts into convulsive tears.  “Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?”

He goes on:

I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had…. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music “changed their life,” especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change….

This question of whether art can change lives is one we might associate with being young, but I’ve had a hard time outgrowing it.

On one trip to the Prado, my friends and I visited Guernica, Picasso’s anti-war mural. For the first time in our lives, congress had authorized a full-scale military action against Iraq. This was an epochal change for us. Our big claim to fame, according to marketers who’d designated us Gen X, was that nothing ever happened to us. We had theoretical understanding of post-colonialism and any number of covert or overt “exercises,” but this was our first actual war. No one we met anywhere in Europe or northern Africa was for it, nor were we, and maybe it was sheer dread that drew us to Picasso’s painting, its framing of the devastation of war: a dead baby, a slashed-open horse, people’s heads bent heavenward, mouths gaped in wails of grief.


I’m not sure who did it first, but we sat down in front of the painting.  We sat and stared at it until the guards asked us to move.

Was the feeling we shared profound? Did it change my life? I never forgot it. War had always been an abstraction to me, something my generation of Americans had studied from a safe remove. I think we were coming to realize even then, ten years before 9/11, that our alleged stasis was over.

Picasso wouldn’t let us remain aloof, yet his warning hadn’t stopped us. Art couldn’t stop another plane from bombing another village.


This is already too long for a blog post, so let me just say: toward the latter third of Lerner’s novel, the March 11 terrorist attacks rock Madrid. Ten explosions hit four trains, killing 191 people. In the wake of this devastation, Adam flirts with the idea of quitting poetry and going “legit”—becoming a real scholar or a lawyer—like so many of us do.

When the first Gulf war began, I was wandering alone through Europe. I turned to books like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for company and consolation. The known world wasn’t there for me, nor was the invisible salve of culture, nor was something as simple as conversation—not in Czechoslovakia, not in Luxembourg. “Your war started today,” so many people told me in English, and yet it didn’t feel like mine. I didn’t want it and I couldn’t stop it. Life felt like so much noise.  And so I returned, again and again, to the Eco, a passage I marked and re-read: “Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.”

This post is part of our annual Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop— is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 8 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

Andrea Dupree serves as the program director for Lighthouse Writers Workshop, which she co-founded in 1997 with Michael J. Henry. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in PloughsharesVirginia Quarterly Review, Colorado ReviewThe Normal School, and elsewhere. She received a 2011 MacDowell Fellowship, which she used to work on a novel.