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The triumph of the exception.

As I begin writing these notes, in early summer 1991, I think Felipe Alfau is alive, although I must confess it's a strange thought, colored by a certain surprise and ambiguous disbelief acquired from the confessions - if one could call them that - he himself has offered. Three months ago, somebody that claimed to be him reluctantly gave an interview from New York to a Madrid newspaper,' and through it I received the very first piece of information about this most secretive individual, isolated in a retirement home, who refuses to accept visitors and has forgotten almost everything. "All this success has arrived too late," he said, referring to Chromos, his novel written forty years ago that was nominated for the National Book Award. He has lived in New York City since he was fourteen. Although he was born in Barcelona and still retains his Spanish citizenship, he writes in English. Now life seems uninteresting to him.

The biographical news we get, scarce and incomplete, is offered with so little desire to communicate that at times it seems as if Alfau, when talking about himself, was either talking about some vanished friend or about one invented years ago whose life is a result of multiple mishaps - somebody whose vicissitudes the older Alfau has already rejected to the point that this creature's existence is brought into question. As time goes by, as a writer he has become a bit more friendly and has accepted some visitors. He has granted some interviews and has had photographs taken by professional Spanish journalists on assignment, or by native New York writers.(2) This new openness of Mr. Alfau, while offering fresh data to understand his life and work, has also broken a spell masterfully built with ambivalence and a sweet sense of isolation. And of course it has persuaded us to stop idealizing him. It encourages us to know more about a man that once built a fortress strong enough to separate life from fiction. He has now become an eccentric old man, intolerant and offensive, refusing to be compared to anybody, specializing in disguised identities, talking about what he ignores, and refusing visitors. Without flexibility or charm, he perceives himself as an exception and is free of any form of interest in his fellowman. In this he shares a lot with a number of gentlemen in the Spanish government that I have come to categorize as the "I-know-nothing-and-I-don't-really-care" bunch, and whose characters, curiously, are often seen by others as a sign of genius. This type of personality, Alfau well knows, is very much an Iberian invention because the pit of inspiration that is his native country has enabled him to create the eccentric and visionary characters that populate Locos and Chromos - nourished by a form of exile that distorts the Spanish casticismo, creatures portrayed by him as "frustrated garbage bags full of memories."

With the help of the little information about Alfau to be found in his ficciones, and adding a few things I have been able to find out on my own, I will try to give my reader some biographical references about the author of Old Tales from Spain, a book up until now untranslated into Spanish. When Felipe Alfau was born in Barcelona on 24 August 1902, Alfonso XIII had already been on the throne for three months, which he had accepted at sixteen after the rule of his mother, Queen Maria Cristina. The cultural period that was taking shape is known as the Generation of '98, recognized as such because of the impact the dismantling of the Spanish empire overseas had on the young. The last imperial bastions were Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and they surrendered in 1898 - that is, just four years before Alfau's mother gave birth to the child. The crisis of '98 had a particular impact on the writer's family. Felipe tells us that his father was a politician and congressman, that he traveled extensively, and spent time in the Philippines. The '98 disaster would leave Alfau's family, like many others, in a state of confusion, needing to adapt to the new industrial, political, and cultural landscape conditioned by the growth and restructuring of Spain in the first few years of the twentieth century. They had relatives abroad, contemplated the possibility of emigrating, and were told it was easy to get a job elsewhere. At the time of the First World War, the United States was perceived as the Promised Land for those willing to take a risk, to find a better life.

Alfau's father, probably with an adventurous and courageous spirit, made the decision to move in 1916. His personality remains in shadows. Why did a lawyer of his caliber look for work in the New World? Why begin anew far from the immediate surroundings? Was he a wanderer or are there other motives? Did he find a home in America? Before that, when the kids were still young, the family moved a number of times. Aside from the many trips to the Philippines, they lived in Cataluna, Madrid, and the Basque Provinces. About Alfau's stay in the Basque country, there is a segment of special interest in Locos. The author pretends to receive, after the death of his friend Garcia and thanks to the doctor at his side, a manuscript dealing "with the time when Garcia and I were schoolfellows and [where] he mentions my name." This manuscript, it seems to me, although obscure and incoherent, is less surreal than the rest of the novel, and the reader does not need to be a detective to sense its autobiographical value. Making his character a schoolfriend, Garcia is clearly offering an important confession that can help understand Alfau's worldview, repugnance of discipline, and self-made character. To be sure, the one giving us data about his own past is obviously not the literary creature Garcia but Alfau himself. His own education stimulated his anarchic views. As a result, he looked for refuge in the solitary confinement of dreams through which he could escape the rigidity of his Catholic education. Here are some paragraphs of this interesting document:

When I was ten or twelve, I am not even sure which, my family moved to Vizcaitia, a village in North Spain where they had been in the habit of spending summers, and I became a student at the Colegio de los Padres Salesianos. I still remember the first impression I received upon arriving at Vizcaitia then. Even at that age I was conscious of the fact that the village had grown smaller since the last time I saw it. Soon after, an existence of hardship and suffering began for me . . . .

I was not an intern. I lived with my family and there was a good two kilometers' walk from my house to the school which I had to take twice a day, at seven in the moming and at nine o'clock at night.

The time between these two walks was filled with study, recitations, mental strain, discipline, punishment; fear .... And then to walk home at night with a leaden heart and an eighty-page assignment of history for the next day. To study at home, to poison the few moments of freedom for which I had longed all day away from that scholastic prison, amidst the warmth of my family and the tolerance of my parents so different from the cruel strictness of those priests....

I had heard the priests repeat time and again that it was necessary to suffer in order to obtain happiness and also say that the devil likes to make us suffer in order to test our faith in Providence. All these things the priests said at the school and many other things which I did not understand very well. Even at that age I was faintly aware of the absurdity of such a tragic and self-punishing attitude about life....

I left school at night and arrived home late. I had no appetite to eat my dinner and rushed through it in order to prepare my homework. Homework after fourteen hours spent in school. Every night as my mother pressed me to eat and asked me about school. I felt the same mad desire to cry and tell her to take me away from it all, but the idea of duty, study and sacrifice had been impressed on my young brain by that constant preaching and teaching always mixed with religious and mystic doctrines....

[It] was not a secret at home, not even to me then, that [my mother] had a decided contempt for anything connected with the Church. The only reason why my mother ever let me attend a school of priests is because it was the only so-called good school in Vizcaitia, because practically all reliable schools in Spain are in hands of priests or nuns and because one seldom finds a school in Spain where something pertaining to the Church is not hidden in some comer.(3)

Given Alfau's tendency, patent in everything he has written, to distort the notions of time and space in order to establish the laws of simultaneity and given his desire to confuse the reader by dismantling the borders between what is real and what is fiction, it is hard to believe that the profoundly anti-clerical views offered in this text are the same as those of the old man who told a journalist of Tiempo, a magazine in Madrid: "Here [in the United States] everybody is escaping from something. Everybody protests and is a |liberal.' I am a complete conservative, completely Franquista and Catholic. I could have returned to Spain any time.... In this world only anarchy and tyranny have a place. I prefer the latter."(4)

Unquestionably, Alfau prefers the stories of the Spanish past he once heard to those he lived. Ever since he was fourteen, after arriving in New York, he has manipulated the myth of Spain as if he were playing with little stamps or "chromos" (the significant title of his second novel) - e.g., gaudy, fading images of the past, reminiscences of a certain personal style, invented lives that belong to a few gestures of memory."(5) His phantasmagoric and anachronistic characters, he says in the prologue to Locos, disrespect the writer. They rebel and steal the story from him. Moreover, they are ready to replace him, to live on their own. They adore reality as much as real people love fiction, and it is precisely in that abyss where we need to find the often-unconscious dislocation between the writer and his text. Alfau's characters are challenging because they refuse to give in and are ready to fight for their freedom.

Nobody that has read Unamuno's "nivolas," and particularly Niebla (Mist), would believe this narrative strategy to be original. But the person who talked by phone from New York with a journalist of El Pais claims that in 1928 he had not read Niebla and had only heard of Unamuno as philosopher. Be that as it may, what's clear is that the mist (Unamunian and otherwise) has thickened, and it's difficult to tell if Alfau is speaking the truth.

To be honest, Alfau's characters achieve their independence only in part. They justify themselves and complain constantly, which makes them more human than the author wants to think. Alfau says his characters hope to exist in reality, dream with reality, but then get lost. And he says: "I should add: the author is lost."(6) Truly, the writer has already been lost for awhile, although I don't think he really cares. And if one day he reads this essay of mine, I hope he enjoys the fact that I want to use a literary method similar to the one he professes: I want to turn him into a fictitious character because that's the only treatment that fits him well. That is what I will do.

Nothing could be more novelistic for a reader of O. Henry, Fitzgerald, or Edith Wharton than imagining the New York of the beginning of the century, before the Crash, when Manhattan began to take away from Paris the role of the center of modernity and had become a lighthouse for those in the Old World wishing that a new life could begin any minute. Since the arrival at any new place is always a terrific beginning for a novel, I can perfectly imagine the boat carrying the Alfaus to their arrival in New York in 1916, when the First World War was taking place and immigration waves were intensifying. The rumor was that one could make a lot of money and get a job in the City of Skyscrapers. Of course it was a mirage hiding the truth about racism, sickness, poverty, and difficulty in adapting. Everybody can make a fortune, people thought.

The boat carrying the Alfaus looks to me like the one described by Franz Kafka in the first chapter of Amerika. The passengers are Italian, Spanish, and Greek. It's cloudy, a bit cold. It could be the autumn. The boy has hardly talked during the journey. Introverted and thoughtful, he is fourteen, has good manners, and delicate gestures. His hair is black and his almond eyes are deep and dreamlike. This is to be one of the most significant moments of his life and he is excited. He looks at the Statue of Liberty. Confident yet anxious about the unknown future, he doesn't speak any English but hopes to master the language soon. What he likes most is music. The world is a huge symphony with multiple sounds and harmonies, in which a note or two can get misplaced. If one day he is to write, he wants to do it with "latitude," not with "longitude," intertwining past and present, truth and fiction, alternating polyphonic and monotonous sounds, and finding surprising solutions - just like modem music. And indeed, he loves music.

Looking at the torch of the Statue of Liberty, his eyes sparkle. He recalls his childhood, the tales told with love by the fire, landscapes of the Levant, Castile, and "Vizcaitia," masses in dark chapels, readings of Don Quixote that nurtured his passion for adventure and redemption. In a word, he has not left anything behind. Nostalgia has helped him bring the past to the present. He doesn't know for sure if he will live forever in New York, although he already suspects it. His expression conveys absence and distance, similar to that of Salvador, the enigmatic mariner in the story "Sails" included in Old Tales from Spain. His father is next to him, probably worried about the family's fate, and, specifically, about his introverted son in love with music, a young man ill-equipped for life. They don't communicate their innermost feelings. They don't look at each other - at least not in my imagination. They are getting closer to the thirty-year-old statue, already a symbol of freedom to all nations. The two are lost in their thoughts. Other passengers start moving, anxious to disembark. Spanish is heard with different accents - a polyphonic concert to be remembered forever by the young man. He will be able to manipulate that music in many ways. He will know new people and have new experiences. He might adapt to the environment or he might not, but he will never reject the tales he heard in his native tongue.

While in his teens, the Felipe Alfau of 1916 is almost a child. His spirit is romantic, like the children's tales he will publish in thirteen years. In fact, in the boat he was already imagining the adventures of Salvador, the Vain Prince, Urruchu, Rolando, the Master, Juanin, and the other poetic alter egos he would one day create. His literary career begins at the end of the twenties, because, at that time, he has already adopted the English language as his means of expression. His first two works, Locos: A Comedy of Gestures and Old Tales from Spain, were written one after the other, in 1928 and 1929 respectively. He claims to have taken that decision to write them because he did not have a steady job and needed money. Apart from some contributions to La Prensa, we know little about what he did until then to survive in New York City, where the Depression was beginning to be felt. After a while he began working as a translator for the Morgan Bank on Wall Street, a job he kept for many years. In his office, sometime around 1946, he began his last known novel, Chromos, which he wrote between one translation and the next to kill time. The fact that this novel, unpublished until 1990, was suddenly nominated for the National Book Award, is responsible for his late fame. He married twice, first to an Englishwoman (with whom he had a daughter but was separated), then to an Irishwoman. He only returned to Spain once, in 1959, but he did not like what he saw because he was attached to a country that only lived in his imagination - a chimera. In New York Alfau was friends with a small group of Americaniards, given to idealizing their native past, to philosophizing without much sense, and to mutually supporting their nostalgia for a past long gone.

To go back to his beginnings as a writer, it is interesting that he began his career with two essentially different titles, Locos and the book I now introduce. If it's true that he became a writer to earn money (a Quixotic goal, if there ever was one), that explains why he tried his luck in two different genres. In fact, he was fortunate with the second: Locos remained unpublished until 1936, in an edition of 1,250 copies for which Alfau received $250, part of a reader's club of Farrar & Rinehart.

Thus, Old Tales from Spain is the first book this Catalan immigrant ever saw published, at age twenty-seven. I have no idea how it was received in the United States or how much he was paid. But judging by the first edition of 1929, I think the publishers at Doubleday must have thought it was an important text since their edition was well prepared and included in the Junior Books series, enriched with seventeen beautiful modernist illustrations by Rhea Wells. I don't understand why it is unknown. Not a word has been said about it.

Ilan Stavans recently discovered that the Barcelona-born writer only used his native tongue, Spanish, to write sporadic poetry and has offered us some early glimpses of his art. Here is a poem, written in 1961, entitled "Romanticismo":
 Espiritu lunatico, suicida, Lunatic spirit, suicidal,
 obsesionado por su solipsismo, so obsessed with its solipsism,
 en un desesperado paroxismo, in a display of paroxysm,
 brindo por su desprecio de la vida, it toasted its disdain for life,
 de Dios y del amor y de si mismo. God, love, and itself.(7)

Even if it isn't a self-portrait, Alfau makes his misanthropic feelings known. The very same suicidal spirit can be found in his entire oeuvre. Isolated in a no-man's-land from which he seems to be sending smoke signals to an invented audience, Alfau has never shown as much predilection for characters "in love with their solipsism" as in Old Tales from Spain. The figure of the solitary hero who champions his cause against all odds and who, in spite of everything, becomes a winner, shows the author's affinity for some traditional fairy tales like "The Ugly Duckling" and "Cinderella." Two very expressive examples of their mischevous type are the protagonists of "The Clover" and "The Witch of Amboto." Neither Juanin, a short boy, nor Urruchu, whom every neighbor in Guernica considers a simpleton, seems capable of winning a battle lost by more brave fighters, but that is precisely what takes place. In other cases, like "The Rainbow," an erroneous judgment leaves a far greater margin of ambiguity, because the writer is careful enough to describe as attractive the unknown painter who upsets a town where almost nothing happened before his arrival. The story begins with his arrival. The reader finds little of importance in his rotten clothes and empty bag, because the character (like Salvador in "Sails") is celebrated for his fascinating attributes, which distinguish him from more sedentary figures. Proof of it is the fact that since the very beginning, the children in town adore him. It's the clash between routine and an extraordinary happening which interests Alfau, to the point that one could claim that is the unifying ingredient in his tales. And in "The Rainbow," one of the most complex pieces in the collection, that ingredient of exceptionality acquires a unique stature because it comes close to lunacy. The town's inhabitants dictate what is normal and what isn't - that is, they judge as subversive the behavior of a newly arrived painter which challenges the norms separating childhood from adulthood. Who would want to go on telling fairy tales after becoming an adult? And that judgment, shared by the entire population, ends up separating the Master from the children whom he would teach how to draw and whose imaginations he would capture with tales of a prince turned into a swamp or a witch flying over a cornfield. These comments, I should add, carry Alfau's signature. He identifies with his own characters. The disgrace that comes with breaking with the norm appears in "The Rainbow" in the form of a storyteller prosecuted, imprisoned, even killed. The last scene, however, is fictional. But even if Alfau had picked a happy ending, the reader would have been fully convinced of the loser's superiority as a romantic hero. Using the strategy of a "lateral narrator," Alfau lets us know whom he is identifying with. Close to the end, he introduces a court visitor who praises the imprisoned, so-called crazy Master: the lunatics, it turns out, are those incapable of appreciating the value of his work.

By enriching the central plot, the introduction of alternative narrators, as in Cervantes, is crucial in this collection. In stories like "Twilight," "The Feud," or "The Golden Worm," the strategy follows a traditional pattern. The storyteller is alien to the plot. The tale illustrates a certain situation or is used to show why a certain thing has acquired its current status. The explanation is always magical. Other times the narrator emerges from within the tale, at a crucial moment, with the mission of explaining a certain shadowy part of the plot. That is the case with "Sails," where, using a fairly modem technique, the writer delays until the second part the appearance of an old man who is capable of ending the story. Nobody knows where this narrator comes from or why he is there, but without him the story would never be complete.

Neither does one know where the redeemer, the semi-divine adviser of "The Legend of the Bees," comes from. In this story the ambiguity is even more fascinating. What's unbelievable is presented ornamented with disparate references to place, like the Prophet climbing the Cerro de los Angeles to address the population north and south of the Iberian peninsula. The result is a symbolic picture, very much like the descriptions of Madrid and Toledo made by Alfau in his novels. In other cases, the narrators of a story suddenly become protagonists. For instance, in "The Weeping Willow and the Cypress Tree," perhaps one of the most technically accomplished pieces in the collection, the suspicion of what will end up taking place (the symbiosis of narrator and protagonist) creates a sense of suspense in the second half of the story, fully capturing the reader's attention.

Also in "The Witch of Amboto" there is a superimposed narrator who miraculously appears as if to resolve the plot line (in this case, it's the fairy mother spied by Urruchu through the window). The young man, wandering, secure in his faith, is granted a prize thanks to an intercepted conversation. He has become the casual listener of a story directed toward the tale's protagonist - the terrible witch of Amboto - through an exchange of confessions with an old colleague. As perceived by Urruchu from the outside, in the middle of the night, and in complete disbelief, the scene has an impressive plasticity.

In the end, it's always curiosity that ignites Alfau's stories. His characters find answers to an enigma that motivated them to reach out and study the universe. Another theme I am interested in talking about is his obsession with offering a magical solution to a natural phenomenon. Only like that, with a talent at once ingenious and surreal, can he explain how four-leafed clover appeared in the world, why one finds poppy flowers in cornfields, why the rainbow appears on the horizon, or why boats have sails. The argument in these tales is at the service of an imaginative explanation.

Felipe Alfau has proudly declared many times that he came to literature as an amateur, not as a professional; that he never read (and continues not to read) Spanish novelists after Galdos. Yet he insists he owes a debt to the Spanish Golden Age, and especially to Cervantes. In his children's stories such debt is obvious. The exaltation of the Knight of the Sad Countenance is present everywhere, like music behind every story, like a compass to those seeking truth and justice (perhaps a reflex of Alfau's adolescent nonconformity). His characters are always swimming against the current and frequently see giants where there are only windmills.


(1) Angel Gil Orrios,"Entrevista a Felipe Alfau,"El Pais, 24 March 1991,72-73. (2) Alfau was photographed by Antonio Tiedra for Miguel Angel del Arco's interview" "|Solo he escrito para burlarme de las novelas,' " Tiempo, 20 May 1991, 138-41, but Ilan Stavans is the only "native New York writer" who has photographed him. - Editor's note. (3) Felipe Alfau, Locos: A Comedy of Gestures (Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive Press, 1988), 164-68. (4) Del Arco (see note 2 above), 138-39. (5) Jose Antonio Ugalde, "Casticismo experimental," El Pais, 24 March 1991. (6) Locos, x. (7) Martin Gaite quotes from an early version of the poem, published in conjunction with Ilan Stavans's "La poesia |cursi' de Felipe Alfau," Diario 16, 15 June 1991. The final version - reproduced on p. 154 above - appears in Alfau's Sentimental Songs (La poesia cursi) (Elmwood Park: Dalkey Archive Press, 1992), 2. - Editor's note.
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Title Annotation:Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau
Author:Gaite, Carmen Martin; Stavans, Ilan
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Previous Article:Anonymity: an interview with Felipe Alfau.
Next Article:The return of the native.

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