|The Novels |
The Man | Bibliography
Last year I learned that Dalkey Archive Press had published a Spanish
writer, born in Barcelona in 1902, whom neither I nor anyone I knew had ever heard of. Who
is this Felipe Alfau, I wondered, who seemed to pass unknown in his native city? Thanks to
Dalkey Archive, Ive since learned a great deal about Alfau, whose oeuvre consists of
two novels (Locos: A Comedy of Gestures  and Chromos , the
latter nominated for the National Book Award), which comprise the major works; a poetry
collection (Sentimental Songs: La poesía cursi ); and a book of
childrens stories (Old Tales from Spain ). If the publishing dates look
odd, that is because, I've learned, Alfau languished in obscurity for over fifty years, at
which point Dalkey Archive sought to set things aright. Ive learned this too: that
he is everything the book jackets boast - a writer far ahead of his time, using techniques
that would later be "discovered" by such postmodernists as John Barth, Donald
Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon; that he is a mesmerizing storyteller; that he has lived most
of his life in New York and written in English except for the poetry; that he is still
alive as of this writing, living in a retirement home in Queens; that there are
those who know of him in Barcelona although few; and that although he is recognized here,
it is not surprising that Barcelona hasnt gone out of its way to claim him as a
native son, given that he is a self-proclaimed Franquista, who goes so far
as to claim that the devastation of Guernica during the civil war was sheer communist
fabrication. He supports the Machiavellian idea of tyranny over democracy, the only two
options possible in the world. And he is, god help us, an anti-Semite (a fact he denies,
but those who know him claim is true) and not too keen on blacks or Hispanics either. He
is, at 97 anyway, a crusty old curmudgeon with hardly any appreciable views. Still . . .
there are those novels.
Despite the disheartening personal convictions, the novels are
ultimately what matter, of course, and Barcelona (and Spain) should really pay more
attention. Unlike Pound, that other wrong-headed genius, there is no evidence of dubious
politics or personal prejudices to be found in Alfaus work (though, forearmed and
with a fine-tooth comb, one could find the odd innuendo, simply given the pre-PC era in
which it was written), which so strongly pits the writer against his writing. Alfau the
writer, back in the first half of the century, created through his narrator a charming,
erudite, assured but self-effacing young man observing and mixing with the diverse
characters in the Café de los Locos in Toledo, Spain (Locos) or adrift in a
backstreet Spanish enclave of New York City (Chromos) where home base is the
Spanish bar El Telescopio. This narrator, who remains nameless, guides us through both Locos
and Chromos, introducing us to a colorful cast of oddball and bohemian characters
- pimps, thieves, beggars, dancers, musicians, detectives, prostitutes, priests - who
spring to life with the force and vitality of a Spanish flamenco. The narrator stands on
the sidelines and spins his tales, and tales within tales, occasionally joining in and
chatting, jostling, drinking. Hes unassuming, dashing, foreign (to the non-Spanish),
witty, enigmatic, a "writer" by trade without much money but time on his hands;
somewhat aloof from the rest of the madding crowd of misfits, but a part of them still -
and altogether delightful: no wonder Mary McCarthy in her Afterword to Locos refers
to him as her "fatal type." One cant help fall under his spell. This is
the Alfau that I have learned to love, even if his creator has outlived his time and
spouts inanities . . . . and this is the Alfau that Barcelona should take pride in.
Locos opens with a Prologue by the author-narrator in which he
blithely states that the novel is written in short stories "with the purpose of
facilitating the task of the reader," who, he says, may freely begin at the
beginning, the end, or the middle, depending on his mood. He reckons, in fact, that it can
be read "in any fashion except, perhaps upside down." He goes on to thank his
characters "for their anarchic collaboration," which can lead to the character
of a brother or son changing midway to the lover of his sister or mother "because he
has heard that men sometimes make love to women." What follows are eight
self-contained but interrelated pieces, mostly all set in Spain, in which the characters
and author interact and often vie for the page.
As familiar as this ploy may seem to us now, it is
astounding to read in a novel written in 1928. Indeed the metafictional, self-reflexive
elements employed by Alfau were not be to seen until a good quarter-century later in
American fiction when Nabokov hit the scene and opened the door to the postmodernists.
(Even considering Nabokovs early work in Berlin, Alfau predates him by two years.)1 Mary McCarthy in her Afterword says that
what she fell in love with in Locos "was the modernist novel as detective
story," which she aptly compares to the detective work the reader encounters in Pale
Fire. Others with whom he has been compared - Calvino, Borges, Flann O'Brien, (and
more recently Barth, Barthelme, and Pynchon) - all came later. Only Pirandello, whose Six
Characters in Search of an Author had just been translated into English in the
mid-20s, and Spain's Miguel de Unamuno (as discussed in Carmen Martín Gaites intro
to Alfaus Old Tales) 2 were experimenting with similar metafictional techniques. Alfau, on all counts,
was far ahead of his time.
"Identity," the first story in Locos,
sets the scene and so really is a good place to begin, although it serves as a
perfect ending as well. Here we find our author-narrator in the Café le los Locos in
Toledo "where bad writers were in the habit of coming . . . in quest of characters .
. . . [Here] one could find some very good secondhand bargains and also some fairly good,
cheap, new material." The narrator then gives us a rundown of the characters milling
around the café that day - all of whom will later appear in various incarnations and
reincarnations - and in this segment he focuses on the forlorn Fulano, who did everything
he could to be noticed, but was ignored by everyone. Fulano appeals to the writer-narrator
to make him a character and when asked his qualifications, Fulano claims his very lack of
importance should count. The narrator says that present-day literature is already full of
that type of character, but he goes on to make something of Fulano anyway with the help of
his friend Dr. José de los Rios - and a good story it is, seamlessly blending the reality
of the café character with a fictional tale which sends Fulano on a quest for identity.
Thus we have a fiction within a fiction, so tightly constructed that the reader is hardly
aware of the fact. Nor is the English reader probably aware of the fact that the name
Fulano in Spanish translates as "So-and-so" or "whats-his-name,"
adding one of those piquant, bilingual touches so familiar in Nabokov. So, when events
conspire to Fulanos identity being usurped by a criminal, the criminal is referred
to as "So-and-so who had escaped from prison," which cleverly serves to further
bind the two no-name characters. Fulano appears once in Chromos, too, where in a
double whammy he is referred to as "Fulano something-or-other."
The next piece, "A Character," takes the
author-character convolutions to their height. Here the narrator begins by saying that he
has had difficulties writing the story he intended to write because of the
"rebellious qualities" of his characters which prevented him from writing it.
The narrator tells us that he is in the home of his friend Don Laureano Baez, who is not
there at the moment. As he awaits his friends return, he decides to begin his story.
He pens one line in which he mentions the character Gaston Bejarano, and then is
interrupted by the doorbell. At this point Gaston jumps in and takes over with the
intention of telling the story in his own words. As Gaston tells his story of
suddenly desiring to speak to a strange woman he has seen in the street at night, he says
he wanted no witnesses because: "It was, after all, my first escape into reality and
I felt a bit shy." He continues later: "She was a real being and I was only a
character. Had I stolen into her world of reality, or had she entered into my world of
fancy? . . . Who would be the stronger: she as a real being or I as a character?"
This is the crux of the story, the exploration of just who is in control of the flow of
the narrative: the author? the author as narrator? the characters themselves? Its
all rather chaotic as everyone wants to get a word in, but amazingly they work together
and the result is another fine, highly readable story with the most perfect of endings,
rather like a pleasing but cacophonous jazz interlude that fuses into harmonious relief,
and here one finds a clue to the answer.
The rest of the stories strut out a delightful array of
characters: a beggar who lives in luxury and whose mistress is part daughter, wife, maid,
and secretary; one of the first fingerprint experts, who clings to his theories at all
cost; a Madrileño Prefect of Police who is hosting a police convention when the power
gets cut, leaving the entire metropolis in complete darkness and bringing out the thief in
everyone; the feisty Carmen who has sex with her brother and is then packed off to a
convent; her brother Gaston, the pimp, who elsewhere is seen living with his mistress
"Carmen"; the huge, dark and exotic Señor Olózaga, a.k.a. Juan Chinelato and
The Black Mandarin; Tia Mariquita, an ancient actress adorned in marabou feathers, with
orange hair and makeup cracked over heavy wrinkles; Doña Micaela Valverde, the necrophil;
Garcia, childhood mate of Alfaus (so Garcia tells us) turned con man turned
fingerprint expert turned poet; and many more.
Our author-narrator weaves in and out of the stories. He is
always apparent, either as one of the characters in the group he describes or as the
writer commenting on the difficulties of the craft. Midway through one story he typically
interrupts the action to state: "As I cannot describe any conversation or action, I
shall endeavor to set down some thoughts, a bad habit which writers have of trying to
convince the readers that they can steal into their characters minds. However, I may
be exonerated, since my characters fail me in a persistent way and refuse to talk or even
move and I cannot very well leave a blank space." At which point he takes up the
Other times he adds a footnote to a characters
utterance to explain that this particular character forced himself into the narrative.
Once, when a couple bursts on the scene, he tells us in a footnote that although they
appeared against his will he "can no longer disregard them, as the other characters
have already heard them and taken notice." As others have noted, this rather glaring
example of self-reflexive whimsy is the only aspect that dates the narrative, but
its tolerable; and if one keeps the 1928 publishing date in mind, its
The stories themselves are vivid, spirited and well-crafted
with a freshness to them unlike many contemporary offerings, and the book can be enjoyed
on this level alone - as a collection of mesmerizing tales - but the real edge (and the
real fun) comes from winding through the novel with its narrator, who drags the reader
through the whole creative process while he, the narrator, wrestles his way through. How
much of this exposed process is for effect and how much is it a genuine fight for control?
Maybe a bit of the latter (Alfau wrote the novel at age 26 while unemployed, in between
feedings of his baby daughter, and in hopes of making some money),3 but clearly the authors strong hand looms
over it all, which it must do to weave the connecting thread. And the more one looks at
that thread, the more thats revealed. On the other hand, once one has hold of the
thread it doesn't unravel so much as form a Möbius strip. Im reminded of a friend
of mine who read Pale Fire and ended up with three index boxes full of notes.
Hed done all of his cross-referencing, had all the facts in order, and felt quite
good about it, but didnt quite know what to make of it in the end.
And so the astute reader of Locos is lured to follow
the transformations of various characters: Lunarito, for example, first appears as the
girl in the street - one Maria Luisa Baez, called Lunarito because of a birthmark - who
entices the character Gaston in "A Character"; later in the same story the
narrator introduces us to the "real" character Gaston, an old man known as El
Cogote. This Gaston, we learn, is bedridden following a bewitching encounter with a girl
in the street - the story with which we began - who, it is discovered, was found murdered
a day before he saw her, driving El Cogote to the brink of madness. In his delirium he is
plagued by a dream in which he is back at his family home playing with his younger sister,
who has the face of Lunarito. He pushes her into a room which the family avoids out of
superstition, and when she emerges she is white haired and tells Gaston that he has killed
her. At this moment in the story, the dream narrative is interrupted by El Cogotes
mistress, whom we know as Carmen, only now she too is called Lunarito. The ubiquitous
Lunarito is actually a character in the frame story: the companion of the wealthy beggar
Don Laureano Baez, described as being "one-fourth daughter, one-fourth wife,
one-fourth maid and one-fourth secretary." She appears again in future stories in
this role of companion to Don Laureano and later, when Don Laureano is imprisoned, as the
maid of the poet Garcia. Carmen, too, appears as both mistress and sister to Gaston as
well as the beautiful nun who drives a priest to suicide. Reading later of Carmen and
Gastons incestuous relationship at the family home gives deeper meaning to old El
Cogotes nightmare and his confusion of the women. Elusive and ever-shifting
identities abound as the narrator sculpts from the raw, "fairly good, cheap"
material at hand - those café habitués.
Other threads are more subtle. Anna Shapiro, in her review
of Locos for the New Yorker (reprinted in The Review of Contemporary
Fiction, Spring 1993), points out the character Garcias probable implication in
a murder which leads to an innocent mans conviction, an implication based on a hint
dropped in a former story and easily overlooked by the reader (by me anyway) who is quick
to cast blame on an irate and humiliated son.
It should be pointed out, too, as careful readers have
noted, that the first story "Identity" holds more meaning than at first appears.
There we see not only the café characters whom the narrator will mold into
"characters," but a foreshadowing of whats to come; thus, the old junk
dealer, who will appear as the fingerprint expert, leaves a dirty hand-mark on the wall
while he tries to peddle a Chinese figurine with a fierce expression - later incarnated as
the Black Mandarin. The fact that the figurine is dropped and broken by the junk dealer
has no special meaning until one has made one's way through the labyrinth of stories and
doubles back. Likewise with Sister Caramel: "Look at that nun. The one that is
interfering now between El Cogote and the woman. She is quite attractive to be a nun. She
would make a good woman of the world." And Lunarito? She is appropriately the
waitress to the whole motley crew.
Trying to make sense of the many connecting threads can
drive one loco, but as with a Zen koan an amazing thing happens while
contemplating the connections: the reader is pulled into a similar creative exercise to
that of the author and is hit somewhere along the line with the pinging realization that
the process of configuration is the end in itself. Pure Nabokov! And - in a later era -
pure Pynchon, whose postmodern "detective" novel, The Crying of Lot 49,
ingeniously induces a similar response.
Stories within stories, stories winding in or back on
themselves, characters who metamorphose and wrestle with the author for a voice - Locos
is a delightful metafiction that self-consciously lays bare the beauty, agony and mystery
of the creative process in all of its convoluted perplexity, make of it what you may,
and keeps the reader entertained all the way. Left with the equivalent of my friends
index boxes of notes to Pale Fire, I took special note upon rereading the
narrators instructions in the Prologue: " . . . the reader is expected to sit
back and watch this procession of strange people and distorted phenomena without a
critical eye. To look for anything else, or to take seriously this bevy of irresponsible
puppets and the inconsistency of the author, would not be advisable, as by doing so and
imagining things that might lend themselves to misinterpretation, the reader would only
disclose, beneath a more or less entertaining comedy of meaningless gestures, the vulgar
aspects of the common tragedy." Yet the sly fox knows well take the bait and
where it will (and will not) take us. Pure Alfau!
written some twenty years later, continues in the same deceptively off-hand and wistful
tone, but is another novel altogether. Gone are many of the fanciful conceits of intrusive
characters and confused identities. It is structurally different as well: rather than
interrelated stories, Chromos is bound together by a brief frame story, which
serves as introduction and closure to the main narrative, now set in the Spanish community
of New York City, where the café/bar El Telescopio (rumored to be owned by the Chink,
Señor Olózaga) stands in for the Café de los Locos. Here gather the
"Americaniards" - those Spaniards and others of Latin origin who had come to
settle in New York - many of whom we know from previous incarnations in Locos.
Our cool and charming narrator gives us a colorful portrait of the transplanted Spaniards,
of whom he forms a part, and within that narrative other texts are interpolated: a
novel-in-progress, an uncanny would-be film script, the reveries of our old friend Fulano,
and notes to a philosophical discussion on the theory of motionless time. Amazingly, and
with seemingly little effort, it works.
It opens with the partly tongue-in-cheek, amusing
The moment one learns English, complications set in. Try as one
may, one cannot elude this conclusion, one must inevitably come back to it. This applies
to all persons, including those born to the language and, at times, even more to Latins,
. . . . a Spaniard speaking English is indeed a most incongruous
phenomenon and the acquisition of this other language, far from increasing his
understanding of life, if this were possible, only renders it hopelessly muddled and
obscure. He finds himself encumbered with too much equipment for what had been, after all,
a process as plain as living and while perhaps becoming glib and searching if oblique and
indirect, in discussing culturesque fads and interrelated topics of doubtful value even in
the English market, he gradually loses his capacity to see and think straight until he
emerges with all other English-speaking persons in complete incapacity to understand the
If I havent as yet made much mention of our
narrators humor, let me emphasize that the novels abound in just such witticisms.
Theyre fun to read. And here, as elsewhere, were left with something to
ponder. The language topic - and all that it implies - is a study in itself. Alfau was,
after all, a Spaniard writing in a foreign language. Conrad, Borges, Beckett, Nabokov,
Brodsky, Kosinski - those who have successfully made the leap to writing in a non-native
language invariably, for all the difficulties encountered, enrich the language and leave
their distinctly émigré mark. Susan Elizabeth Sweeney quotes Asher Z. Milbauer in her
essay on Alfau: "The works of émigré authors are often obsessively autobiographical
and often accused of being repetitious and circular . . . because they attempt
to establish an equilibrium between the "now" and the "then,"
between the "before" and the "after" - and, one might add
between the here and the there. Alfaus novels certainly seek
such equilibrium." 4 This
observation goes a long way to understanding Alfau and his work. But of particular
interest to me is the way these writers enrich the language they have adopted. Stacy
Schiff said of Nabokov that what he wrote may not have been English but was a divine
version thereof. This holds true for Alfau as well though I would amend it to an
"exuberant version thereof." If Nabokov captures the sumptuous delicacy and
intricacy of his beloved lepidoptera, then Alfau is the proud Spanish bull, with all his
pomp and flash. Russian ballet versus gypsy flamenco.
Thus, we have Alfaus Iberian English, which shows
itself occasionally in the hyper correct diction of the non-native user ("Therefore
the nickname El Telescopio with which our same authority on the typical had baptized
it."); the use of Latinate words ("isochronous steps," "craposanct
exultation," "in a fit of vesania" "brachistological fashion");
unusual and often jarring syntax (examples abound), all peppered with the Spanish
vernacular ("you dont have to get so flamenco on me"), which is rich in
bullfighting metaphor: ([Dr.] de los Rios belongs to that very castizo class of Spaniards
who always neutralize the charge of extremism with a philosophical veronica and whose
lemma should be: to tame the enraged bull of radicalism with the cool cape of
tolerance." Taken as a whole its a most engaging and refreshing employment of
the English language. Enough to bewitch the reader in style alone.
The title Chromos refers to some old and faded
calendar chromos (chromolithographs) that the narrator discovers in the opening pages,
which reflect the array of characters and scenarios to follow. Like the immigrants in New
York Citys Spanish community, these chromos "had once been brilliantly bursting
with color and drama, but were now faded and desecrated . . . chromos in disrepute."
In the eerie story which brackets the novel, the narrator is led by Don Pedro, the Moor,
to a locked room in an old basement in a "former neighborhood." He is told to
write about the Americaniards because, according to the Moor: "You should be an
authority on the subject by now." In this dream-like sequence, where "Everything
was foreordained and all inevitable," he descends as though "hypnotized,"
with typewriter in tow, not to surface until novels end. We leave him having struck
a match to see in the dark while the Moor stands guard outside.
Two of the central characters are Dr. José de los Rios,
whom weve met before, called Dr. Jesuscristo by the Moor; and Don Pedro Guzman
OMoor Algoracid, aka Pete Guz, in his role as popular Latin band leader (the name
given to him by the American public "in blissful disregard for Castilian
dignity") and more commonly known in the Spanish community as the Moor. "To
me," the narrator writes, "he was an absurd combination of a slightly daffy
Irish-Moorish Don Quixote with sinister overtones of Beelzebub and the only Irishman I
ever heard speak English with an Andalusian brogue." As the narrator goes on to tell
us: "They were very different . . . they represented two fundamental types of
Spaniards. It has been said many times that Cervantes portrayed the two main types of
Spaniards with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza . . . . [and] in the case of these two men,
the division was part of the national history and structure. It was ethnological and
racial within the same country, one showing the Visigoth and the other the Moorish
influences." One strongly suspects that these two characters are alter egos of our
author-narrator: there is the sound and refined doctor overlooking the whole flock,
especially during times of crisis, and the loquacious and delightfully pedantic Moor
holding court wherever he has an audience. Like Alfau, the Moor takes an avid interest in
music and science and we are given many opportunities to hear his pronounced views, such
as the lengthy discourse on the concept of motionless time in which the narrator hovers
around taking notes from the Moors written work on the subject (interpolated in the
text) while the Moor plays the piano, expostulating on his theory and the virtues of
Beethoven. And like Alfau, as we know him through his narrator and from those who knew the
man, Dr. de los Rios maintains a fairly rational and aloof stance within the community.
Also in the limelight is Garcia, resurrected from his demise
in Locos. Garcia has undertaken the writing of a novel in the Spanish style of
"cursi," which the narrator translates for us as "corny," and in the
hopes of getting the narrator to translate it for him into English, he insists on reading
parts of it out loud. Hence, we have this novel within the novel, read in various
installments. This work-in-progress is a picaresque tale of epic proportion tracing the
rise and fall of the Sandovol family, beginning in the 1870s and spanning three
generations - rather like whats known in Spain as a "culebron" or popular
soap opera. Part of the fun of Garcias novel is the narrators reaction to it:
he wants to listen to please his friend, but his eyes glaze over, he drifts off, and
altogether dreads another one of Garcias readings. This goes as well for
Garcias potential film script, one of the weaker segments of the novel but integral
to the time theme: here we have a man who is able to jump ahead in time, defying it as it
were, which ties in with the many questions and difficulties of time that the novel throws
Most delightful, and every bit as picaresque, is the parade
of Americaniards. At one point many of them meet up at the home of Don Bejarano and
Lunarito, reincarnated here as a dancing team, for a big paella dinner. As with any
expatriate or immigrant gathering of this sort, the crew embarks on a lively discussion of
the pros and cons of their adopted country. One complaint comes from a young El Cogote, a
bullfighter in Spain brought over to the States by the enterprising Señor Olózaga, only
to discover that the ASPCA - which he pronounces as Aspca - prevents such sport. As the
narrator tells us: "They had run into difficulties with organizations whose purpose
is to make life as dull as possible for all animals and, in the Moors own words,
deprive them of their right to a glorious and tragic life and death." They lament the
lack of "loitering" in America where everyone rushes from home to office and
back. They lament that wine isnt drunk with meals. And they especially lament the
small and cramped rooms in American apartments and the lack of public toilet facilities
(of amusing interest to me, as an American expat in Spain, because this is just what we
complain about here).
The Moor is upset by Lunaritos American way of making
paella - cooking the chicken first in a pressure cooker and using clams from a can. No
bones or shells, she says. Which prompts the Moor to pontificate on the Vanishing Paella.
Also on hand is the green Americaniard, one who has obtained his green card and is now
"more American than the Americans." This antipático "is the one who could
stand nothing Spanish since he took out his first papers." As the green man says:
"I still think that Spain is a country of darkness and I feel what every Spaniard
with common sense must feel when leaving: that he has come into the light." To which
the others laugh and jeer until he is forced to leave, which he claims is fine by him
because he believes in eating at a "civilized hour" anyway, not in the middle of
Fulano is also at this gathering and here the narrator looks
into his eyes and is pulled into Fulanos reveries, which always involve Fulano in
some extraordinary self-sacrificing role except for the time he is drunk and daydreams of
falling in love with a mannequin, whom he violently "rapes" before cutting her
up to destroy the evidence (interestingly, the segment Alfau claims to be his favorite).
Other Americaniards, not part of the El Telescopio crew, include
the family of Don Hilarión Coello, who have quite a go round with an American life
insurance salesman, who by chance brings on Don Hilarións death as he is trying to
sell him a policy.
The novel concludes with the characters, at the invitation
of the Moor, gathering for a grand bacchanalian fiesta at El Telescopio, where the music,
dancing and wine flow until the wee hours as the atmosphere slowly takes on a surreal
intensity . In a state of inebriation the narrator staggers into the street near dawn and
lights a cigarette. At this point we jump to the frame story which brackets the central
narrative. Our narrator, who was left in a trance on page 23 in the dark room holding a
match, springs back to life as the match burns into his finger.
A few days later, on a Sunday, he and Dr. de los Rios are
walking down the street and run into the Moor, who tries to lure the narrator into
following him to "go down and find something to do" rather than accompanying Dr.
de los Rios to Saint Patricks cathedral. The narrator is torn, but at last bolts
after Dr. de los Rios. He chooses to walk up the steps to the warm "glow"
of the church rather than pursuing the Moor, who "went down into the darkening
distance." The choice does not hinge on religious principle, but has to do, one
presumes, with the narrators desire to escape that "dark room" to which he
had descended. The decision harks back to the Moors discussion of the
"motionless universe extending in undreamt-of directions," including the
possibility that a single instant could create the impression of enduring time -
speculations that the narrator found depressing (and has experienced first hand). Dr. de
los Rios objected to the Moors theory and it would appear the narrator is throwing
in his lot with the doctor, opting for some much-welcomed grounding. For the moment at
* * *
For this reviewer, to know Alfaus
work is to love his work. To better know the man, as one would like, we may soon expect a
biography by Ilan Stavans, who conducted an interview with Alfau in 1991 and has
been researching his enigmatic subject for some time. Based on that interview and the
collection of essays found in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1993
(essential reading for all those interested in Alfau and his work), and various stray
sources of reviews and articles that Dalkey Archive was kind enough to send my way, here
is what I have learned of the citys errant son:
On August 24, 1902 Felipe Alfau was born in Barcelona, the son of a
fairly well-to-do lawyer, who had been governor of provinces in the Philippines at one
time. The family - "one of journalists, politicians, and artists" - left
Barcelona early on and moved to Guernica and the Basque country before emigrating to the
U.S. in 1916. It is Guernica, then, where Alfau grew up. A telling episode from this
period can be seen in Locos, where undoubtedly we see a strong hint of the author
in the character of Garcia, who gives a first-person account of his boyhood in Guernica
(specifically, the nearby village of Vizcaitia): "When I was ten or twelve, I am not
even sure which, my family moved to Vizcaitia, a village in North Spain where they had
been in the habit of spending summers, and I became a student at the Colegio de los Padres
Salesianos. . . .Although as a child I had never been particularly fond of Vizcaitia,
where I always felt like a stranger unable to mix completely with the other children who
spoke Vascuence, a dialect I was always loath to learn, I had always enjoyed
there a life of freedom and a certain amount of play and solace. Now I had come to
Vizcaitia to live and study, rather to study than live" (sic). It was to Guernica,
too, that Alfau returned during his one and only trip back to Spain in 1959 en route to
joining some American friends in the south near Málaga. (This was the trip that prompted
him to note, against all evidence, that Guernica had escaped unscathed from the war.)
Once settled in New York City the fourteen-year-old Alfau
quickly picked up the language and quite easily immersed himself in the dazzling new
culture. His father, too old to learn a new language quickly, nevertheless made a decent
living editing the Spanish weekly Noticias. The young Alfau at first wanted to be
an orchestra conductor and in fact wrote music criticism in Spanish for La Prensa,
but after taking a couple of courses at Columbia University, he began writing in English.
He wrote his first novel, Locos: A Comedy of Gestures, in 1928 although it was
not published until 1936 when Farrar & Rinehart picked it up for a special series to
be distributed to subscribers by mail. It met, not surprisingly, with little fanfare. Next
came the book of childrens stories Old Tales from Spain, which saw
publication in 1929, seven years before Locos. During this interim Alfau began
writing poetry, which he penned in his native tongue because, as he tells us, ". . .
poetry is too close to the heart, whereas fiction is a mental activity, an invention,
something foreign, distant." 5 Sentimental Songs (La poesía cursi), a collection of the poetry
from this period, went unpublished until 1992 when Dalkey Archive produced a bilingual
edition. Last came Chromos, written in the late forties and stuck away in a
drawer for lack of finding a publisher.
Alfaus day-to-day life was taken up with his work as
translator of the prosaic documents at Morgan Bank in Manhattan, work which didnt
seem to rankle the unsung writer as much as one might suspect. As Alfau later said, he
wrote his fiction and poetry mainly to pass the time at the bank (though Locos,
as noted, was written while he was unemployed), evidently harboring no great ambition to
make his name as writer. He married twice, first to a Jewish woman with whom he had a
daughter, and secondly to an Irish American. Chandler Brossard, an acquaintance of
Alfaus at the time, gives us an amusing and opinionated sketch of the wives:
"[H]e had first married a Jew, which I think upset him very much, and I think that
this is one of the reasons he quit writing for a very long time: she was a real sergeant,
always driving him to write, and he finally just couldnt stand it." The second
wife was a young girl of fifteen or sixteen whom hed been forced to marry when her
father discovered them living together in a basement room. As Brossard says: "She was
a lower-class girl, daughter of a fireman, a real lower-class Irish American. To be honest
you couldnt quite believe these two together - a circus act: there was this
Moorish-looking guy, really elegant, with great style; and there was this balloon from
Brooklyn, a messenger from the bank where he worked. . . The whole thing didnt make
There is much that doesnt make much sense about
Alfau, who, as he says of the Moor, appears more full of contradictions the more one knows
him. On the one hand he is a marvelous chronicler of humanity - skeptical but intelligent,
full of wit and humor - and on the other hand he is a bigot and a fascist. Chandler
Brossard claims that Alfau suffered from paranoia and even underwent shock treatments at
one time, which may explain something of the incongruity, but it probably has as much to
do with the time and place of his birth, nearly a century ago. Be that as it may, we do
know he has always been reclusive and difficult, often alienating friends with his views.
We must await Ilan Stavans biography to shed more light on the man himself. What
remains are the splendid novels, novels that took nearly half a century to gain
recognition, well past the time when Alfau could rejoice in their success. He was, as
Dalkey Archives Steven Moore (the editor who discovered Alfau) says,
"bemused" at his rediscovery, but for Alfau: "It would have interested me
much more when I was younger . . . .The whole thing is too late." 7
Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press, however - a small press
dedicated to bringing back in print forgotten or passed-over English language writers
(often those who were/are ahead of their time or too experimental for the mainstream
press) as well as noted foreign authors in translation - it is not too late for us and
future generations to take delight in the wild, inventive and wonderful world that is
1 See Susan Elizabeth
Sweeney's discussion of how Alfau predates the modernist metaphysical detective story in
"Aliens, Aliases, and Alibis: Alfaus Locos as a Metaphysical Detective
Story." The Review of Contemporary Literature, Spring 1993. Ed. John OBrien.
Illinois State University. Specifically p. 208 and footnote 7 p. 214.
2 Carmen Martín Gaite, "The Triumph of the
Exception" from the introduction to Old Tales of Spain by Felipe Alfau.
Translated from Gaite's Spanish translation and adapted by Ilan Stavans. Rpt. RCF, Spring
1993. p. 177.
3 Margo Hammond, "Fame Finally Comes Knocking On Felipe
Alfau's Door." St. Petersburg Times, 11 November 1990. [Includes a brief interview
with Alfau by Steven Moore and John O'Brien.]
4 Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, p. 207.
5 IIan Stavans, in "Anonymity: An Interview with Felipe
Alfau." RCF Spring 1993. p. 149.
6 Chandler Brossard, in "Two or Three Things I Know
About Him." RCF, Spring 1993. p. 194.
7 Margo Hammond, from accompanying interview.
Alfau, Felipe. Chromos, Illinois State University: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.
_________. Locos: A Comedy of Gestures, ISU: Dalkey Archive Press;
first paperback edition, 1997.
O'Brien, John. ed., The Review of Contemporary Literature, Spring 1993, ISU:
Dalkey Archive Press.
© 1999 The Barcelona Review