This may serve as a justification for the disorder I have allowed to invade my narrative. In order to preserve the sequence of Garcia’s stories, I have sacrificed my own. It is a good excuse anyway.
In the 1940s Filipe Alfau wrote his best-known novel, Chromos; it was published in 1990 and hailed as a prototype for the postmodern novel. Now I thought Tristram Shandy held this honor but I’ll admit that Chromos does benefit from a few of the postmodern tropes. Chromos also suggests the argument between the tenets of the New Criticism and the more modern literary scholarship that might explicate a passage based on what the author had for breakfast that day.
The blurb posted on Amazon is informative and succinct:
Chromos is one of the true masterpieces of post-World War II fiction. Written in the 1940s but left unpublished until 1990, it anticipated the fictional inventiveness of the writers who were to come along – Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Sorrentino, and Gaddis. Chromos is the American immigration novel par excellence. Its opening line is: “The moment one learns English, complications set in.” Or, as the novel illustrates, the moment one comes to America, the complications set in. The cast of characters in this book are immigrants from Spain who have one leg in Spanish culture and the other in the confusing, warped, unfriendly New World of New York City, attempting to meld two worlds that just won’t fit together. Wildly comic, Chromos is also strangely apocalyptic, moving towards point zero and utter darkness.
Wow! That’s a great write-up: Chromos must be flying off the shelves in Barnes & Noble. Look at the praise:
- True masterpiece
- fictional inventiveness
- American immigration novel par excellence
- Wildly comic
If you hurry, you can be the first person to make a comment on this novel at B & N.
The way I see it, Chromos is Alfau’s masterpiece … and one of the two novels he wrote. It’s fictional inventiveness often seems like literary patchwork and compared to the likes of Raymond Federman suggests that Alfau is filling up space with his other unpublished works rather than bothering with any truly inventive narrative complexity. Alfau may write better prose but I consider the works of Oscar Hijuelos or Sandra Cisneros superior at exposing the immigration experience. And as far as being wildly comic … I have commented many times on my inability to experience the humor in any book touted as wildly funny.
But other than that, Chromos is a good read and I certainly recommend it, except for one thing: I can barely read the font used for the novel but when it’s time for an intra-textual story to interrupt the primary narrative, the publisher uses an even tinier font to let the reader know. I had to read this novel with two magnifying glasses, a bookstand from the 1960s, and a slab of silicone to assure that Alfau’s masterpiece didn’t slide away from me when I was distracted by my own chortles and guffaws.
Wikipedia gives us a short entry for the author:
Born in Barcelona, Alfau emigrated with his family at the age of fourteen to the United States, where he lived the remainder of his life. Alfau earned a living as a translator; his sparse fictional and poetic output remained obscure throughout most of his life.
Alfau wrote two novels in English: Locos: A Comedy of Gestures and Chromos. Locos — a metafictive collection of related short stories set in Toledo and Madrid, involving several characters that defy the wishes of the author, write their own stories, and even assume each other’s roles — was published by Farrar & Rinehart in 1936. The novel, for which Alfau was paid $250, received some critical acclaim, but little popular attention. The novel was republished in 1987 after Steven Moore, then an editor for the small publisher Dalkey Archive Press found the book at a barn sale in Massachusetts, read it, and contacted Alfau after a friend had found his telephone number in the Manhattan phone book. The novel’s second incarnation was modestly successful, but Alfau refused payment, instructing the publisher to use the earnings from Locos to fund some other unpublished work. When Steven Moore asked if he had written any other books, Alfau produced the manuscript for Chromos, which had been resting in a drawer since 1948. Chromos, a comic story of Spanish immigrants to the United States contending with their two cultures, went on to be nominated for the National Book Award in 1990.
Dawn Powell, who knew Alfau in the 1930s, described him in her diaries:
Felipe Alfau, brilliant, dazzling mind, witty, Jesuitical, a mental performance similar only to Cummings, but a scholar—erudite, fascinating, above all a romantic about his Spain, fiercely patriotic, a figure out of a medieval romance, a lover of Toledo, of old Spain, valuable surely to his country—talked so brilliantly of Totalitarianism that is based on human weakness, human error, human conduct, that it almost convinced me.
And finally, the infamous Harvey Pekar made Felipe Alfau the subject of a comic in 1993: