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The power of 'Chromos.' (Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau)

When the Casa Moneo, a general store on 14th Street in New York, closed down a few years back, one of the last centers of the Peninsular Spanish colony in the city disappeared. Today this relatively small and little-known ethnic group, with antecedents that go far back, has been engulfed by the waves of new Hispanic immigrants from Latin America, just as the essentially Peninsular daily La Prensa has been absorbed by the mainly Spanish American El Diario.

Chromos, a "discovered" novel written in the 1940s, preserves the memory of a way of life that held on for some years against absorption by the Anglo-Saxon culture on the one hand and by that of Hispanics from the New World on the other. It is a society peopled by those the author, Felipe Alfau, calls "Americaniards."

What it means for an individual to speak English or Spanish, to think in Spanish or English, how the constraints of a language change you as a person - these linguistic considerations begin the book, set its tone, and function as theme for much that is to happen:

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 so to Latins, including Spaniards. It manifests itself in an awareness of implications and intricacies to which one had never given a thought; it affects one with that officiousness of philosophy which, having no business of its own, gets in everybody's way and, in the case of Latins, they lose that racial characteristic of taking things for granted and leaving them to their own devices without inquiring into causes, motives or ends, to meddle indiscreetly into reasons which are none of one's affair and to become not only self-conscious, but conscious of other things which never gave a damn for one's existence.

The action takes place in New York, mostly on the lower East Side and in a bar nicknamed El Telescopio. The larger-than-life characters who forgather there are a varied crew, but all are transplanted Spaniards. Foremost is Don Pedro Guzman O'Moore Algoracid, a sometime orchestra leader who is known to the American public as Pete Guz, to Spanish friends as the Moor. He is described as "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." Interspersed with the action (or lack of it) are stories of Spain, told by a certain Garcia, who says he may put them into a novel someday.

It is reminiscent of the old writer Morelli in Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, whose ideas on the novel correspond nicely to the form of the one in which he appears. Garcia is the Morelli of this remarkable story, anticipating, as does Alfau's earlier book Locos. A Comedy of Gestures, that great outpouring of good fiction that has come to be known as the Latin American "boom" and which, in light of this book, might well have resulted from some condition that is inherently Hispanic and which goes back to Don Quixote.

Chromos refers to the gaudy commercial prints of the period, calendar art, as it were. It is a fitting name for the book as it contains what otherwise might be called vignettes. One Guignolesque episode dealing with the mummification and subsequent deterioration of the lawyer Don Hilarion is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez and The Autumn of the Patriarch. Moments like this and the anarchic structure of the book (one of the chromos is a lengthy discussion of time, space, and the fourth dimension, all quite solid and erudite) bring us back to the ideas put forth at the beginning of the novel, for at the end Alfau goes back to that theme and explains his difficulties:

To express this in my own language would be superfluous. To attempt to describe it in another's impossible. In Spanish I don't have to explain my nation or my countrymen. In English, I can't. It is the question of the synthetic method as opposed to the analytical. In Spanish one sees and things remain unquestioned and clear. In English, one studies and uncovers meanings that one does not understand. It is then that, as I said in the beginning, complications set in.

Alfau is strikingly aware of linguistic differences, the very language of his narration is perfectly good English, and yet it is not English. Nor is it Spanish either in a free or in a literal translation. The closest one can come to describing it is as meta-English, with recourse to a regnant cliche. We might be witnessing linguistic transformation here, what happened when the Franks and Goths began to speak Latin or the Normans Anglo-Saxon. This is therefore a remarkable book, not only for what it says, but also for what it is struggling to say, often with strangely successful insights.
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Author:Rabassa, Gregory
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:834
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