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Literature is corny: the cursi and Felipe Alfau's 'Chromos.' (Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau)

In both Locos and Chromos the narrator presents himself with very little desire to narrate anything. In the first novel the prologue blames the characters for most of the narrative decisions and the author expresses his resentment toward their behavior, always interfering with his plans. He limits himself to sitting at the Cafe de los Locos in Toledo, where he sees or meets all the characters that will populate the different narratives of the book and where the first of them starts to unfold. Chromos opens with commentaries about the difficulties of living and writing in the space of a language other than one's own, about the impossibility of recreating through literature peoples and events separated by miles and lost in the past. Faced with these problems, the narrator does not take the task of writing such a work as a challenge through which he can prove his skills as a writer. Once again, all authorial responsibility is avoided. The "inspiration" comes from another character, Don Pedro, who suggests the necessity of writing not about Spaniards in Spain but rather about Spaniards in New York, people like the narrator and himself, the "Americaniards," as he calls them. This suggestion is presented as a temptation, as a crime, that the diabolical Don Pedro lures the narrator into committing. He resists and agrees only to follow the tempter to a building in his old neighborhood. The dark room which the narrator penetrates is obviously different from the Cafe de los Locos; but like the space of the first novel, it functions as what we could call, imitating Todorov,(1) a kind of "space-recit" where the unwilling and passive narrator is provided with, almost assailed by, stories, the stories that will form the novel Chromos.

The scene of the dark room in the apartment reminds us of the Platonic cave, with the chromos that hang on the walls barely illuminated by the light of the match acting as weak copies of the true objects, places, and peoples they represent, of the figures and scenarios from the narrator's past, the only images of a Spain lost in space and time. In spite of being precarious, those images open up the memory and the narratives more powerfully than the book, inhabited by roaches, that falls open on the floor of the apartment.

Among the stories that follow, the longest is the one narrated by Garcia. As in Locos, where he was also a character, this narrator likes to make stories that recreate the materials of his memory. The fact that Garcia presents his narrative as memories ties that narrative with the scene just mentioned of remembrance in the apartment. Garcia's novel is presented in a formative state, as a rough draft that needs to be revised by his author following the comments of "our" narrator, the patient ear who listens to the prolific Garcia and who is supposed to translate the whole thing once completed.

The task is rife with difficulties and the comments about the future novel are usually unfavorable. At times the novel is accused of being too explicit, borderline pornography; other times, the bad taste falls in different territories:

"I have this part pretty well worked out. Of course, the whole story is old-fashioned and I would like to present it in some parts, especially this one," he waved the papers in his hand, "in a sort of old-fashioned - well stilted - if you know what I mean, to fit the period." He searched for the right word or explanation: "Cursi is what I mean. That is the word: cursi."

The word "cursi" is difficult to translate, its meaning almost impossible to convey with any other word, and the closest I can find to it in English is the word "corny." I told him that I knew what he meant and he went on:

"I am quite serious about your helping with the translation and if I convince you, I hope you will bear that in mind and try to create that cursi feeling in English."(2)

Garcia wants to use bad taste, the cursi, for aesthetic, literary purposes. The cursi can be avoided either by not being cursi or, as in the case of Garcia's novel, by indulging purposely in that defect, by being consciously cursi, since one of the conditions of something corny or cursi is that the person who commits the sin is not aware of it: being intentionally cursi is not being cursi at all.

And yet, Garcia perceives his story as genuinely cursi and the narrator himself confesses that "anything in which I collaborated in English was sure to turn out pretty corny anyway" (56). The quality of cursi attributed by Alfau to Garcia's story could be extended to any narrative based in the memory, not because of some inherent defect in that kind of literature but rather because memory, and furthermore, literature, shares some of the traits of something or somebody cursi. A brief review of this word will help clarify the point.

Cursi, like corny, is "one of those words"; it defies definition and everybody seems to have his or her own opinion about what is and what is not cursi. The etymological origin of cursi is under dispute but it is certain that the word was born in the nineteenth century in Spain and its history is closely tied to that of the bourgeoisie, a class that in Spain does not start to appear with its modern face until the 1800s and whose role is not a prominent one until the next century. Although his explanation of the etymology is doubtful, Tierno Galvin's analysis of the term is complete and, in my view, very accurate.(3) I'll summarize his conclusions.

Cursi does not appear until the 1900s because until then there was not a real bourgeoisie in Spain and the cursi is a quality of bourgeois behavior. The bourgeois is a person satisfied with what he has but not with what he is. According to Tierno, the bourgeois' will to emulate the noble class is not a congenital impulse to ascend and gain power but rather

the testimony of an intrinsic social weakness and of a continuous psychological discomfort provoked by a misunderstood, sometimes denied, but always operative, feeling of guilt. The modern bourgeoisie has been made by building on the debris of the two classes whose power it took away, the nobility and the clergy, and the instrument with which the bourgeoisie built its power, money, has always had in the Western conscience a suspicious scowl, something between Judaic and diabolical. (4)

Tierno continues by saying that the success of the word cursi is due to the intensity of the feeling of suspicion and the fear of being the object of the jokes that the Spanish bourgeoisie has always had. Since it is a matter of behavior, being cursi requires a certain knowledge of habits and styles of the superior way of conduct the bourgeois tries to emulate, thus making the cursi something alien to the lower-class and unwanted in the noble. The response of the spectator to the cursi is ironic but it is an irony that "appears as a result of the bitterness provoked by a complete realization ... of the fundamental equality of humans."(5) Whoever feels ironic towards the cursi in the other feels also his own weakness, his community with the other, his own part in the cursi about which he is laughing. Among the meanings of cursi Tierno proposes the following, some of them common to the words - "corny," "stilted" - that Alfau uses to describe it: rancio (antiquated, demode); quiero y no puedo (I want but I can't); afectado (affected, stilted); snob, inadaptado, advenedizo (maladjusted, upstart), and ostentoso (ostentatious).

Coming back now to Chromos, it is easy to perceive that the main narrative of Garcia's novel - the rise and fall of the Sandoval family - deals precisely with the kind of people most easily inclined to the cursi, a bourgeois and nouveau riche family. To this material, Garcia wants to add a style cursi as in "stilted" and, probably, "demode." What is interesting to me is the confession of the main narrator that "anything in which I collaborated in English was sure to turn out pretty corny anyway." I think we should read this feeling under the light of the novel's opening commentaries about the difficulties of writing in English, a language that is not the narrator's own, and we should consider here also the resistance and unwillingness of Alfau's narrators in proceeding to narrate. They feel "guilty," they feel like upstarts in the space of a culture and a language to which they don't belong "by blood." The skills of a narrator these Americaniards have acquired through difficult transactions and the books they write (Locos, Chromos) are built on the debris of others' stories, of others' experiences and thoughts, and of others' language. The irony that the narrator of Chromos projects on the stories he is listening to - most notably Garcia's - is only possible by the realization that his story is "one of them," and it will, necessarily, share their weaknesses.

The chromos that hang on the walls of the room that the narrator visits are not the "real" thing; in the same way, the novel with which Garcia wants to capture the exact aroma of his memories is doomed to fail. Memory is corny, memory is cursi, is a quiero y no puedo, it wants to grasp something it will never reach; all it can do is try to emulate that superior class of things. Like Plato's reflections on the cave, like the chromos of the apartment, Garcia's novel is but a weak copy of the "real" people, places, and events.

Alfau's narrator seems to apply this quality of weak reproduction not only to this literature of the past and to the memory, but also to any writing, to all literature. Literature is also cursi, is also a quiero y no puedo. The good reader - a good cursi - feels the irony inherent in all narrative fiction that Alfau so successfully undermines in his novels. Garcia says it best in Chromos.

At this time of true narratives, biographies and earnest confessions, when many people seem convinced that even if truth is not stranger than fiction, it leaves more to the imagination, it is well to risk this deficient account of unreliable data, too short and incomplete to be considered the biography of a family or even to satisfy this general thirst for supposed truth. But as things when written have an inevitable tendency to wrap themselves in the unfitting garments of secondhand literature, this will probably turn out to be but a grotesque parody of what once was truth. (34)


(1) See Tzvetan Todorov's "Les hommes-recits" in his Poetique de la prose (Paris: Seuil, 1971). (2) Felipe Alfau, Chromos (New York: Vintage, 1991), 56; hereafter cited parenthetically. (3) In his Desde el espectaculo hasta la trivializacion (Madrid: Taurus, 1961), Enrique Tierno Galvan ties in the origin of the word with the cursiva style of writing, first introduced in Spain in the 1800s by the British merchants in Andalusia. Joan Corominas, the most reliable author in the field, traces the origin of the word to the Moroccan kursi, a chair, later used to refer to those who, from the chair of their supposed knowledge, express themselves in a pedantic style (Diccionario critico etimologico castellano e hispanico, 1980). From there, the word gained all the other meanings that it has today, having almost completely lost the original sense. (4) Tierno Galvan, 87 (my translation). (5) Ibid., 94-95.
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Author:Candau, Antonio
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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