Felipe Alfau was Spanish-American writer who spent most of his long life in New York City. While not a prolific writer, he was one who was far ahead of his time, employing authorial techniques that would later be “discovered” by Postmodernists such as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, and Robert Coover.
Alfau was born in 1902 to a prominent political and literary family. His father was a lawyer and colonial official in the Philippines, and his sister had penned a novel before her twentieth birthday. For part of his childhood his family resided in Guernica in the Basque region of Spain. When he was fourteen, his family moved to New York City. Alfau loved music and hoped to become a conductor. After college, he became a music reviewer for La Prensa. Several years later he began to write journalism in English and became a translator for the Morgan Bank. His first novel Locos: a Comedy of Gestures was completed in 1928, but was not published until eight years later.
Locos is metafictive collection of stories, which, taken together, tell the story of the Bejerano family and their associates. The most important characters are Don Gil Bejerano; his brother Don Laureano, a wealthy beggar; Gil’s elder son Gaston who is also known as the pimp EL Cogote; his younger son Pepe; his daughter Carmen who is both the seductress Lunarito and the nun Sister Carmela; Garcia, a poet turned fingerprint expert; the sensible Doctor Jose de los Rios; and Juan Chinelato, a Chinese wrestler and adventurer turned butterfly wrangler and theatrical producer. This cast of characters are habitues of the Cafe de Los Locos in Toledo, though most of the action takes place in Madrid, with some detours through China and the Phillipines. The Characters apply to the narrator (named Felipe Alfau) because they wish to appear in the novel. The subsequent plot, in which these characters collide, define themselves in opposition to one another, and eventually take on names and traits in common and blend together, examines the fluid nature of personal identity. Locos received critical acclaim at the time of its publication but met with popular indifference and soon disappeared.
In the years after he finished Locos, Alfau wrote poetry which he did not attempt to publish , and completed a second novel in 1948, which was rejected by several publishers. Then in 1987, Locos was republished, after Steven Moore, then an editor at Dalkey Archive Press, found the book at a barn sale in Massachussetts, read it and contacted Alfau after finding his name in the Manhattan phonebook. The reprint edition generated enough favorable attention to lead Moore to ask Alfau if he had anything else. Alfau produced the manuscript of Chromos, which had sat in a drawer for 40 years. Upon its publication in 1990, Chromos would be nominated for a Natioanal book Award.
Chromos revives some of the characters from Locos, including Garcia, Doctor de los Rios, and Felipe Alfau, but it takes place in New York City. One important new character is Don Pedro, called the Moor, who, along with the other characters, frequents the Spanish expatriate bar El Telescopio. Chromos uses its setting among the Spanish and Latin American ex-pat community to examine the collective identity by which the group constructs itself, in this case through the ironic label of “Americaniards.” As in Locos, the structure is one of apparently unrelated narratives which obliquely comment on one another: the first concerning the Sandoval family’s gothically grotestque rise and fall and the other following the life of John Ramos, an expatriate in New York who has the astonishing ability to jump forward over long periods of time. Both of these narratives are interwoven with the present day stories of El Telescopio’s Americaniards.
In 1992, Alfau finally published the poetry that he had written throughout his lifetime. Even though he had written his novels in English, he had written his poems in Spanish because “Poetry is too close to the heart while prose is a mental activity.” This collection was a bi-lingual edition entitled Sentimental Songs/La Poesia Cursi. This would be Alfau’s last publication and he would die seven years later at the age of 97.