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part 2 The Novels | The Man | Bibliography
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.
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 observation:
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 up.
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 the day.
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 least.
* * *
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.)
|© 1999 The Barcelona Review
pictures/ covers © Dalkey Archive Press
Felipe Alfau: A Bibliography
OLD TALES FROM SPAIN
© 1993 The Review of Contemporary Fiction/Dalkey Archive Press
|navigation: barcelona review #12 mid-april to mid june 1999|
|Fiction||Prologue by Felipe Alfau
Identity by Felipe Alfau
Summer House by Nuria Amat
Knock on Wood by Frank Thomas Smith
Scar by Lee Klein
Africa on the Horizon by Carlos Gardini
|Regular Features||Book Reviews