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The Barcelona Review

PLEASE NOTE: In 1999, when TBR first published the following article, it was presented in two parts due to being too large for the Internet of that time. It is easier to rebuild, correct and re-present in this issue but links to the stories will take you to their original pages

 From the novel Locos: Prologue | Identity

Felipe 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 (1998) 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.

The Novels

Locos coverLocos 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 thankhis 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 Nabokov’s 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 Gaite’s intro to Alfau’s Old Tales) 2 were experimenting with similar metafictional techniques. Alfau, on all counts, was far ahead of his time.

From the novel Locos: Prologue | Identity

"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 de 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 "what’s-his-name," adding one of those piquant, bilingual touches so familiar in Nabokov. So, when events conspire to Fulano’s 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 friend’s 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? It’s 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 Alfau’s (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 narrative.

     Other times he adds a footnote to a character’s 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 it’s tolerable; and if one keeps the 1928 publishing date in mind, it’s impressively novel.

     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 author’s 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 that’s revealed. On the other hand, once one has hold of the thread it doesn't unravel so much as form a Mobius strip. I’m reminded of a friend of mine who read Pale Fire and ended up with three index boxes full of notes. He’d done all of his cross-referencing, had all the facts in order, and felt quite good about it, but didn’t 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 Cogote’s 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 Gaston’s incestuous relationship at the family home gives deeper meaning to old El Cogote’s 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 Garcia’s probable implication in a murder which leads to an innocent man’s 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 what’s 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 friend’s index boxes of notes to Pale Fire, I took special note upon rereading the narrator’s 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 we’ll take the bait and where it will (and will not) take us. Pure Alfau!

From the novel Locos: Prologue | Identity

Chromos coverChromos, 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: 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, including Spaniards.

. . . . 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 obvious.

    If I haven’t as yet made much mention of our narrator’s humor, let me emphasize that the novels abound in just such witticisms. They’re fun to read. And here, as elsewhere, we’re 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.’ Alfau’s 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 Alfau’s 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 City’s 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 novel’s 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 we’ve met before, called Dr. Jesuscristo by the Moor; and Don Pedro Guzman O’Moor 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 Moor’s 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 what’s known in Spain as a "culebron" or popular soap opera. Part of the fun of Garcia’s novel is the narrator’s 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 Garcia’s readings. This goes as well for Garcia’s 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 Moor’s 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 isn’t 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 Lunarito’s 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 Fulano’s 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 Hilarión’s 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 Patrick’s 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 narrator’s desire to escape that "dark room" to which he had descended. The decision harks back to the Moor’s 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 Moor’s 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 Alfau’s 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 city’s errant son:

Felipe Alfau in 1964

The Man

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 children’s 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.

     Alfau’s day-to-day life was taken up with his work as translator of the prosaic documents at Morgan Bank in Manhattan, work which didn’t 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 Alfau’s 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 couldn’t stand it." The second wife was a young girl of fifteen or sixteen whom he’d 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t make sense." 6

     There is much that doesn’t 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 Archive’s 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."

     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 Alfau.

From the novel Locos: Prologue | Identity

1  See Susan Elizabeth Sweeney's discussion of how Alfau predates the modernist metaphysical detective story in "Aliens, Aliases, and Alibis: Alfau’s Locos as a Metaphysical Detective Story." The Review of Contemporary Literature, Spring 1993. Ed. John O’Brien. 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.

Texts Cited

Alfau, Felipe. Chromos, Illinois State University: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.
Alfau, Felipe.  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. 


The following bibliography is reprinted with kind permission from
The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1993 and Dalkey Archive [update included]

Felipe Alfau: A Bibliography
Steven Moore and Ilan Stavans

I. Books by Felipe Alfau

Old Tales from Spain

a. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Doran, 1929

Locos: A Comedy of Gestures

a. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1936
b. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1988; afterword by Mary McCarthy
c. London: Viking, 1990
d. New York: Vintage, 1990
e. London: Penguin, 1991


a. Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990
b. London: Viking, 1991
c. New York: Vintage, 1991
d. Dalkey Archive Press, 1999 [paper edition]

Sentimental Songs (La poesía cursi), trans. with an intro. by Ilan Stavans

a. Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992 [cloth and paper editions]

2. Anthologized Selections from A1fau's Works

"The Beggar." In Thirteen Great Stories. Ed. Daniel Talbot. New York: Dell, 1955, 7-19. [From Locos.]

"The Stuff Men Are Made Of." The Pushcart Prize XVI: 1991-1992. Ed. Bill Henderson. Wainscott, NY: Pushcart Press, 1991, 218-39. [From Chromos.]

3. Translations of Alfau's Works


Locos: Una comedia de gestos. Trans. into Spanish by Javier Fernández de Castro. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1990; Mexico City: Planeta, 1992, with an introduction by Ilan Stavans.
Locos: Una commedia di gesti. Trans. into Italian by Eva Kampmann. Milan: Leonardo, 1990.
Locos: Een Gebaren Komedie. Trans. into Dutch by Peter Elberse. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1991.
Das Cafe der Verrnückten: Seine Commode der Gesten. Trans. into German by Heidrun Adler. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1991.
Le Café des fous. Trans. into French by Antoine Jaccottet. Paris: Payot, 1992.


Cromos. Trans. into Spanish by Maria Teresa Fernández de Castro. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1991.
Chromo's. Trans. into Dutch by Barbara de Lange. Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1991.


Cuentos españoles de antaño. Trans. into Spanish with an intro. by Carmen Martín Gaite. Madrid: Siruela, 1991.

4. Interviews with Alfau

Del Arco, Miguel Angel." 'Sólo he escrito para burlarme de las novelas.'" Tiempo, 20 May 1991, 138-41.

Gil Orrios, Angel. "Entrevista a Felipe Alfau." El Pais, 24 March 1991, 72-73.

Moore, Steven, and John O'Brien. Brief interview included as sidebar to article "Fame Finally Comes Knocking on Felipe Alfau's Door," by Margo Hammond. St. Petersburg Times, 11 November 1990, 7-D.

Stavans, Ilan. "¿Quien es Felipe Alfau?" La Nueva España 124 (17 March 1991): 43-44. Reprinted in Hispania 75.3 (September 1992): 610-13.

© 1993 The Review of Contemporary Fiction/Dalkey Archive Press

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