Thursday, October 15, 2020

Felipe Alfau's Locos: A Comedy of Gestures - making the butterflies dance

When I was first learning to root around in literature, Vintage International was the publisher with the spines that caught my attention.  They were, at the time, the American home of Vladimir Nabokov, Günter Grass, Yukio Mishima, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Mann.  Also, for some reason, E. M. Forster and The Good Soldier, but in general they helped me get some sense of international Modernism.  Lots of interesting things going on out there. I guess they pulled in William Faulkner later, since I only have earlier editions of his books.

Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures (Farrar & Rinehart 1936, Dalkey Archive 1988, Vintage 1990) is one of the books that caught my attention by its company in the line.  It is a perfect fit, a tricky, playful, meta-fiction, with stories about, for example, a man who wants to become a fictional character and enlists the help of Alfau, the author, and another about a woman who is so in love with Death that she not only spends her day going to funerals but occasionally dies, you know, once in a while.  It is not all fantasy of the supernatural sort, though, as in “The Wallet,” about the time the power went out in Madrid during a police convention, so that the criminals were bolder than ever and the police, spending “all their efforts and time upon discussing matters of regulation, discipline and now and then how to improve the methods of hunting criminals” that they had “neither the time nor energy” to stop crime (p. 78).

The stories occasionally have footnotes, always at points where either the author or the characters lose control of the narrative:

(The voice of Carmen was heard from the next room smothered in manly laughter.) 1


1  The reader may disregard this interruption of two characters whom I had not intended for this story, but who are endeavoring to complicate matters on the stage by making noise in the wings.

In this case the footnote is a clue to or intrusion by the other level of the book, where the collection of stories are in fact a novel, with characters recurring across the story, often with different names so it is not clear that they are almost all related.  All of the characters are introduced in the first story, patrons of Locos, the bar that supplies the book’s title.  One character is present only in the form of “a little Chinese figure made of porcelain” with a “butterfly on his shoulder” (8-9.  I can see that the story, looking at it now, is full of clues or hints or jokes about what happens later in the book.  Chinelato’s dance of the butterflies, that is a lovely episode.

For the reader who likes this sort of thing, this is great fun, and for the reader who does not I suppose great tedium.  Mary McCarthy reviewed the novel in 1936, and returned to it over fifty years later for its rediscovery.  “Alfau, or his book, was evidently my fatal type, which I would again meet in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and more than once in Italo Calvino” (“Afterword,” 201).

This Spanish novel by a Spanish writer was, surprisingly, written in English and first published in the United States, where Alfau was an immigrant who wrote for Spanish-language newspaper and did commercial translation.  The Vintage edition of Locos was successful enough that an unpublished novel by Alfau, Chromos, written in the 1940s, appeared in 1990.  I remember it as quite good, but it has been thirty years since I read it.  Locos has stood up well.  Maybe someone can re-discover Alfau again.


  1. interesting and sounds a bit like Borges... i'll look for something by Alfau, tx...

  2. The end of McCarthy's essay:

    "Yes, there is a family resemblance to Nabokov, to Calvino, to Eco. And perhaps, though I cannot vouch for it, to Borges, too."

    The Calvino flavor was strongest to me, but I could taste hints of those other writers.

  3. I see that after the edition I have, Alfau's books moved back to Dalkey Archive. Wandering books.

    One of the great features about books is that they are durable objects. Even forgotten, they persist.

    1. not only that but i've suspected that they have a private life of their own... what really happens in your library when your back is turned? lol...

  4. Having not heard of Alfau before, I was surprised to learn of this novel's publication history or at least I was until you said it was originally written in English. In any case, it seems like a nice engagement with some of what Unamuno was doing with Niebla - no to take anything away from Alfau.

  5. Alfau is clearly a Spanish writer, a real one, in that tradition. Yes, Unamuno, one chapter or story in particular is like an homage to Niebla, now that you mention it.

    I wonder how many people in English departments are Isak Dinesen experts, to pick a similar example. I think she is clearly taken as a Danish writer.