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text only version of article          From the novel Locos: Prologue | Identity

AlfauFelipe Alfau:
A Retrospective

by Jill Adams

Felipe  Alfau 1902 - 1999

The following article was written just before TBR received the announcement of Felipe Alfau's death, which passed relatively unnoticed in Barcelona.  


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, I’ve since learned a great deal about Alfau, whose oeuvre consists of two novels (Locos: A Comedy of Gestures [1936] and Chromos [1990], the latter nominated for the National Book Award), which comprise the major works; a poetry collection (Sentimental Songs: La poesía cursi [1992]); and a book of children’s stories (Old Tales from Spain [1929]). 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. I’ve 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 hasn’t 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 Alfau’s 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. He’s 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 can’t 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.

-continue  The Novels and The Man | Bibliography

-text only   version of  entire article

© 1999 The Barcelona Review

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
-Poetry Virgil Suarez
-Interview Nuria Amat
-Retrospective  Felipe Alfau
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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