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Truth or Temptation? Don Pedro's refutation of time in 'Chromos.' (Georges Perec/Felipe Alfau)

About two-thirds of the way through Felipe Alfau's second novel, Chromos, Don Pedro takes the protagonist, along with the novelist Garcia, Dr. de los Rios, and Senior Olozaga to his apartment in the East Sixties and launches into an unexpected disquisition on the nature of time and motion (250-79). While explaining why we should not believe our senses but rather take up a philosophical understanding of these two concepts, he allows the narrator to examine the essay he has written on this topic. Meanwhile, he plays the piano rapturously, commenting on such composers as Beethoven and Berlioz.

There are several questions raised by Don Pedro's discourse, a segment of the novel that has not received much attention in the reviews which attended the publication of Chromos. First, are we to take this presentation seriously as a philosophical underpinning of Alfau's novelistic theory, or at least as a grounding for the absence of motion in the "reverie" (22) that constitutes the long second section of the novel (23-344)? Second, considering that Don Pedro has been continuously described in terms of Mephistopheles during the course of the novel, should we sympathize with Garcia and the narrator, who find the Moor's comments nihilistic in their implication? Third, given the consistency of the reviewers' comparisons of Alfau to Borges, should we look for a specific influence of the Argentinian's famous essay "Nueva refutacion del tiempo," published shortly before the completion of Chromos in 1948? And finally, does Don Pedro's discourse on time and motion relate to or reformulate any of the ideas presented in Locos, a novel which features many of.the same characters, completed in 1928 and published in 1936?

I will attempt to show that we are meant to consider Don Pedro's philosophy as a serious comment on early twentieth-century philosophy about time, although we are not supposed to approve of it unequivocally. The presentation of Don Pedro as a Mephistopheles figure, that eternal denier of creation and moral values, precludes unqualified acceptance. The Moor's refutation of time does not directly follow from that more famous one of Borges, since it does not proceed from the tradition of idealistic philosophy foregrounded in "Nueva refutacion del tiempo." Nevertheless, Chromos as a whole shares the Argentinian's preoccupation with the denial of time through memory, and so Alfau may have been influenced by the elder master on that level. The presentation of the denial of time in Chromos extends the abolition of time from the self-enclosed world of literature in Locos to everyday life, but Alfau does not reach a final conclusion about whether what holds in fiction obtains in the daily world of the novelist as well.

The discourse on time and motion includes the narrator's reading of Don Pedro's notes in which the philosophy is laid out. It is one of several interpolated texts in the novel. By this point in the novel, Garcia's story about the Sandoval family's decline has almost played itself out after approximately twelve installments. Only one segment remains (282-92). So too has Garcia finished with both his narrative of Julio Ramos (52-55, 77-84,104-6, 199-204), which he would prefer to realize in the form of a motion picture, and his one-installment memoir of Little Garcia (36-46). Another major interpolated text remains to be completed, the narrator's reading of the mind of Fulano, which although begun earlier (139-40,241-44) reaches its conclusion after several disturbing erotic escapades with mannequins imagined when Fulano is falling asleep drunk (299-302, 307-42) in the narrator's presence. Thus along with Garcia's stories (Sandoval - Ramos - little Garcia) and the projections into Fulano's mind, Don Pedro's philosophical essay constitutes one of three kinds of inserted material we need to interpret to understand Chromos.

The major thrust of time and motion which has been given to the novel does not come from the interactions of the four leading characters. Instead, it is provided by Garcia's narrative of the decline of the Sandoval family. This story begins with the sentence, "A summer in the early 1870s, Mariano Sandoval came from Jauja to Madrid" (25), and it ends over forty years later when Fernando, Mariano's son, dies and is buried. Garcia writes in conclusion, "They descended a steep dismantled hill, where the trees growing in all directions and in strange positions seemed to have gone mad, and then they took the dusty, scorching road to the cemetery" (292). In this melodramatic story of births, deaths, and copulations (including incestuous and adulterous ones), we have a family saga of decline in three generations. The question we must answer is whether Don Pedro's ideas force us to reformulate this narrative, which is, at first glance, a record of time and motion. After all, the second section of Chromos, "a kaleidoscope of fancies materialized by forgotten chromos, dirty, discolored chromos" (348), transpires in the time it takes a match to bum down in the narrator's fingers (21, 345).

Idealistic philosophy has asked if time is abolished when a person experiences a mental state of a previous occasion or when two different people share the same mental state. Alfau gives us both these scenarios in his novel. First, when Garcia thinks of Little Garcia, "he seemed transfixed and, although his eyes were on the billiard table . . . he was not following the game." The narrator realizes that Garcia has "been transported to the past" (36). He puts the second scenario in play when he has his narrator enter into Fulano's mental state. Considering that the narrator has not had any previous obsession with female mannequins, we are likely to believe that he is not projecting himself upon Fulano but entering into his consciousness.

A bridge between the denial of time and motion (Little Garcia) and their acceptance (Sandoval) is provided by Garcia's narrative of Ramos, who is a young Spaniard who wishes to go to the United States. He is given the power of concentrating to such an extent that he can move through time and end up in the space he would occupy at the end of the elided time period. Alfau describes this occurrence: "Standing there [Ramos] imagined himself a passenger on his way to America. If he could only accelerate time, eliminate the long, almost hopeless wait that lay before him. The ship swayed ever so faintly. The motion would have been imperceptible to anyone, but the eager senses of Ramos detected it immediately, enlarged it to a time-conquering rolling motion over Atlantic waves" (54). The reader is not sure what to think of this tale. The narrator finds it a stupid story, presumably because it violates what we "know" about time and motion. However, if we believe what we hear from Don Pedro later in the novel, then the story of Ramos does not violate time and motion, and we may regard it more sympathetically.

Don Pedro does not address the violation of time and space in literary creation. Instead Alfau's tactic consists of grounding Don Pedro's reflections in those of the hyperspace philosophers culminating in Hinton and Ouspensky, while departing from Ouspensky's conclusions about morality. Although the uninitiated reader may at first think that the Moor's speculations are fairly current for 1948, actually they do not seem to advance beyond the year 1920, twenty-eight years before the completion of the novel. The narrator clearly explains where Don Pedro got some of these ideas:

I stopped reading to put a few questions to the Moor and in answer he disclaimed any originality in these theories. He reviewed the bold encompassing of Minkowski, the optimistically conditioning analogies of Hinton and crystal clear digest of Ouspensky, as some of the few who were on the right track and then others since Lagrange's well-founded suspicions. He bowed politely to Gauss and bypassed non-Euclidians to end in a swift curtsy before Riemann and run his hands over the piano in irrelevant improvisation that climbed the upper register and kept going. (256)

In this passage Alfau takes up the works of six persons who have contributed to speculations on time, and he later adds Poincare and Abbott. If we look at their ideas, we see that Don Pedro is correct in stating that he contributes little that is new. Linda Dalrymple Henderson's The Fourth Dimension and non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art(1983) provides useful background information to gloss Don Pedro's theories. She notes that the first published suggestion that time may be considered a fourth dimension was made by d'Alembert in 1754, who claimed that he borrowed the idea from a friend of his. Henderson speculates that the friend was Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who himself referred to the idea in 1797 in his Thdorie des fonctions analytiques (9). By 1824 Karl Friedrich Gauss reasoned that altemative geometries to Euclid's must be possible, but he did not put his ideas into print. In 1866 part of Gauss's correspondence on non-Euclidean geometry was translated into French and disseminated (4-5). In 1867 came the publication of Georg Friedrich Bernhard Riemann's 1854 speech, which took a "broad view of a non-Euclidean geometry of n dimensions" (7, 20).

Later in his talk the narrator says that the Moor "conceded that perhaps modem science is only endeavoring to avoid boredom at the repetition of the same old postulates and redundant formulas, perhaps scared by a frightful suggestion of futility once tossed off by Poincare, by creating a novel mental game whose price lies outside an imaginary vicious circle and befuddles the main issue with the razzle-dazzle of surprising apparent contradictions" (266). Don Pedro is referring to the work of Henri Poincare, who in 1891 "had formulated his famous illustration of the impossibility of proving the truth or falsity of the hypothesis that our space is Euclidean" (Henderson, 16), published as "Les Geometries non euclidiennes."

By Poincare's time fiction was continuing philosophical speculation on the nature of time and space. Not surprisingly, at one point in his notes Don Pedro refers in passing to Edwin Abbott Abbott's famous novel, Flatlan& A Romance of many Dimensions by a Square, first published in London in 1884. Don Pedro comments: "Dizzily they pick up all their popularizing tackle: Fitzgerald |contraptions,'elastic and non-elastic rods, fast and slow clocks, light signals, free-falling elevators and sidereal swift-traveling twins who turn out younger than each other, and decide to go home to flatland aboard their equivalence hypothesis and call it a day" (258). Although today's reader is still able to purchase Flatland, we can refer to Rudy Rucker's evaluation of it in his 1984 book, The Fourth Dimension. Part satire and part mystical novel, Abbott tells the story about A Square, who is imprisoned when he tries to teach his fellows of the two-dimensional world about the third dimension, which they do not understand. By analogy, any human who attempts to describe the fourth dimension also meets with disdain, and "A Square's trip into higher dimensions is a perfect metaphor for the mystic's experience of higher reality" (12). Presumably, the Moor sees himself in the role of A Square, who casts opprobrium on the stuffy people around him while trying to intimate to them the higher reality.

From 1884 to 1896 Charles Howard Hinton(1853-1907), developing Abbott's approach, published his two series of Scientic Romances. He also wrote the essay "Many Dimensions" (1 885), A New Era of Thought (1888), The Fourth Dimension (1904), and An Episode of Flatland (I 907), works which widely popularized the idea of the fourth dimension. (See the 1980 omnibus edition of Hinton's works.) For Don Pedro his work is characterized by "optimistically conditioning analogies" - a fair evaluation. Ruckert sums up this aspect of Hinton's thought: "higher space can be viewed as a background of connective tissue tying together the world's diverse phenomena. If one moves toward higher and higher conceptions of space, one is tending toward some ideal |superspace' in which everything - near and far, past and future, big and small, real and imagined - is together in some great Unity" (60). Whereas Don Pedro is partially willing to follow Hinton into the direction of the Eastern mystics and their reflections on the idea of the One, he also stresses the idea of the deadness of the universe in addition to its unity.

Don Pedro curses optimism, telling the narrator:

The universe is dead but one cannot admit that fact The Olympian optimism. In decent, cultured well-to-do society, it is not proper to speak of death, one avoids this word and the verb "to die" as almost obscene.... One cannot come out and say that someone died, or that something is dead. It is shocking, revolting - and yet the universe is not passing on or away as many well-bred scientists have insisted, because there is no motion and despite our scruples, nothing is passing. (268)

The narrator feels that the "concept of a motionless universe extending in undreamt of directions was depressing" (260). For him it "conjured infinite, terrifying vistas of changeless destiny - our past and future spread out and coexisting, all foreordained, all inevitable and we pinned, held like flies in this endless spiderweb" (260).

Don Pedro has less intellectual sympathy for Hinton than for the neo-Euchdean Herinann Minkowski. Henderson notes that in the wake of H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (I 895), " a temporal fourth dimension became part of the science |fact' of Minkowski's space-time continuum for Einstein's Theory of Relativity in 1908" (9). Minkowski suggested "an overall continuum of space-time that encompasses the |world-lines' of every individual" (34). In September 1908 Minkowski delivered a lecture entitled "Space and Time" before the 80th Assembly of German Natural Scientists and Physicians at Cologne. He declared, "Henceforth, space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality" (Henderson 356).

Since the narrator notes that Don Pedro "was sponsoring the movement of back to neo-Euclidianism" (265), we should note that Minkowski's spacetime continuum of 1908 was actually a flat, four-dimensional structure, free of any non-Euclidean or "|Riemannian'curvature" (Henderson 356). Indeed Einstein, who used Minkowski's ideas for his theory of relativity, noted the Euclidean side to Minkowski's theory (357). It was only after 1916 that Einstein turned to the non-Euclidean geometrical tradition inherited from Riemann. Don Pedro does not want to follow Einstein along this path.

Without making a direct reference, Don Pedro again alludes to his reading of Minkowski, when he refers to the square root of minus one. His essay states:

Yet, this concept of a limiting velocity becomes simple when considered as an extension where all inclinations which appear as velocities from zero to infinity take place within a quadrant beyond which they only appear as motion in the opposite direction with less than ninety degrees as the difference between an explosion and something that stands still and endures, for the conversion of static mass into energy, or more properly speaking, for an observer to experience mass as energy or vice versa - curiously enough, a multiplication by the square root of minus one. (265)

Minkowski introduced the square root of minus one to make the time dimension, [-c,sup.2][dt.sup.2], imaginary in the equation which described the location of a point-event in a four-dimensional continuum with three dimensions of space and one of time, i.e., [dx.sup.2] + [dy.sup.2] + [dz.sup.2] - [-c.sup.2][dt.sup.2] = [ds.sup.2] (Henderson 356).

A philosopher influenced by Minkowski, and of all eight of the mathematicians mentioned by Alfau, the one to whom he is probably most indebted, is Peter Demianovich Ouspensky (1878-1947), nine of whose books are still in ptint in paperback in English translation. Ouspensky, who was born in Russia, fled in 1920 to England, where he remained until 1941, when he came to the New York City area. He died in 1947, and in 1978 Yale University initiated a P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection. Ouspensky's first major book was Tertium Organum, which has a long, complicated publication history. Originally published in 1912 in St. Petersburg, a second revised edition appeared there four years later. It was translated into English by Nicholas Bessaroboff and Claude Bragdon for Manas Press of London in 1920. Although Ouspensky had no hand in this translation, he wrote a preface for the 1922 edition of it, printed by Knopf in New York in 1922. He assisted Madame E. Kadloubovsky in a new translation, but it was not published until 1961 in an abridged, hand-set edition. Only in 1981 did Knopf publish this translation in a trade edition. Thus any further detailed investigation of the influence of Ouspensky's thought on Alfau should turn to the 1920 edition and to the book's sequel, the lengthy A New Model of the Universe, developed over 1914-30, which was published by Knopfin 1931, with a revised edition coming out three years later, reprinted in 1944. In Chapter 10, "A New Model of the Universe," Ouspensky refers to Minkowski's use of the square root of negative one (1944: 362), whereas Tertium Organum (1981 ed. consulted) refers to Minkowski only in more general terms.

Henderson considers that Ouspensky developed the idea of the fourth dimension more fully than anyone before him, even Hinton, to whom he was heavily indebted (246). In Tertium Organum Ouspensky departed from Hinton and attempted to reconcile the spatial and temporal qualities of the fourth dimension. Henderson notes that Ouspensky was not particularly interested in non-Euclidean geometry, and that his concern was with the world of four dimensions, not the curved spaces of the non-Euclideans (255). Ouspensky states that time and motion as we understand them are illusory, for they are the results of an incomplete understanding of the fourth dimension of space. Whereas back in eighteenth-century France, d'Alembert and Lagrange began speculation on the idea of the fourth dimension as that of time, here the notion of time is redefined in terms of space, and consequently, matter, time, and motion are all illusions. Don Pedro comes to his discussion with this idea of Ouspensky's "crystal clear digest" (256) central to his views.

In chapter 10 of Tertium Organum, Ouspensky writes:

We may put it like this: the sensation of motion is the consciousness of the transition from space to time, i.e. from a clear sense of space to an obscured one. And, on this basis, we can arrive at a real recognition of the fact that we perceive as sensations and project into the external world as phenomena the motionless angles and curves of the fourth dimension.

Is it necessary or possible to assume, on this basis, that no motion of any kind exists in the world, that the world is static and constant and that it appears to us to be moving and evolving simply because we look at it through the narrow slit of our sense-perception? (1981:92)

For Ouspensky, access to the fourth dimension comes through the psyche, and we need to develop ourselves beyond just three dimensions. Artists as well as mystics take us to the world of the fourth dimension, and this idea serves as a link to Don Pedro as both music conductor and pianist, playing Schumann's Kreisleriana for the guests at his apartment.

According to Ouspensky:

For an artist the phenomenal world is merely material - just as colours are for the painter and sounds for the musician; it is only a means for the understanding, and the expression of his understanding, of the noumenal world. At our present stage of development we possess no other means for the perception of the world of causes, which is as powerful as the one contained in art. The meaning of life consists in the fact that the noumenon, i.e. the hidden meaning and the hidden function of a thing, is reflected in its phenomenon. (1981:133)

Ouspensky goes on to describe these intuitions of the noumenal world as "cosmic consciousness," a term whose popularity he initiated.

On the idea of artistic genius, Don Pedro follows the same general line as Ouspensky. Dynamically, he declares that the "man of genius is a mutant; he advances ahead of his time, beyond the frontiers of knowledge and common experience, into the blackness of the unknown" (278). The artistic genius sets about to "raise the curtain of man's next stage and let consciousness flood our total identity which remains invariant under all transformations" (278).

Don Pedro also follows Ouspensky's religious thought as well, as his essay heads toward his concept of what he might call the Eternal Now: "Why the creator did not begin things before, or what he will do after, is meaningless and, having discarded the tenses, which are but ways of looking at the infinitive of our own making, the Creator emerges as the verb in the present indicative" (276). Similarly in A New Model of the Universe (1944:376), Ouspensky speaks of eternity in terms of a fifth dimension and stresses that we should think of it not as infinite extension homogeneous with finite extension, but more as the state of Brahma (376). The idea that "everything that is possible exists already" is tied into six dimensions by both Ouspensky (1944:376) and Alfau (277-78).

Considering all these correspondences it is striking that Don Pedro takes a different view of morality than does Ouspensky. The Moor says:

We are at once good and bad and constructive and destructive and beautiful and ugly. It is what we choose and what we inspire others to choose and be conscious of in us that determines what we appear and the moral code or conduct on which we decide. This permits the concept of free will in a universe which is set and where past, present, and future coexist. Our freedom consists of our selection of a shape out of an infinity of possible shapes, even if that shape, once selected, still contains within itself another infinity of possible shapes. In this manner determinism is not opposed to an illusory free will. It is up to us what somewhere or somewhen we conceive in this continuous extension of existence. (277)

Don Pedro's discussion is prefaced by an analogy to sculpture, whereby an infinity of all possible shapes is contained in a block of stone, and it is up to the sculptor to decide on the one he wants.

Ouspensky's approach to morality uses aesthetics in a different fashion. In Tertium Organum, he writes: "This last brings us to a totally new view of morality. Morality, the aim of which consists precisely in establishing a system of right relationship to emotions and in assisting their purification and elevation, ceases to be in our eyes a tedious and self-contained exercise in virtue. Morality is a form of aesthetics" (1981:188). For Ouspensky, morality should be the coordination of all sides of life, "of the actions of man and humanity with the higher emotions and the higher attainments of the intellect" (190). We are in the realm of aesthetics here because aesthetics, the sense of beauty, "is the sense of the relationship of parts to the whole, the need for a certain harmonious relationship" (190). Actions, thoughts, and feelings that are not coordinated do not achieve morality. In this way, Ouspensky tries to give a sense of morality more active than Don Pedro's.

Should we accept Don Pedro's discourse? Only as a possibility. When Don Pedro Guzman O'Moore Algoracid is first introduced, we are told that he is of "somber countenance and attire, with Mephistophelean suggestions of a clowning Dracula" (9). To the narrator he is a "daffy Irish-Moorish Don Quixote with sinister overtones of Beelzebub" (10). Dr. de los Rios warns the narrator, "Don't sell your soul to this devil" (17). In the scene in which Don Pedro presents his theory, we are reminded that "the Moor had thrown a smoke screen of whimsicality around his lameness" (262). Not surprisingly, Don Pedro reminisces about one of his great triumphs, the evening when he conducted Gounod's Faust at El Real in Madrid (261). We should remember that as a Mephistophelean figure "with the eyes of a hypnotizing fakir" (265-66), he is obsessed with jokes and negation. Alfau goes so far as to allow him to declare that Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks by Richard Strauss is the greatest work of contemporary music (267), not a statement to inspire total confidence in his formulations.

Given all of these sinister perceptions of Don Pedro, it is no wonder that Garcia should lament:

"But if you eliminate time and motion, you rob life of all its drama, of all romance, of all adventure." He must have been ruminating and worrying about the matter while pacing the garden. "You kill it, you kill everything. It is a dead universe, as you say, changeless, hopeless. Life becomes -" He groped for words and then gave up with a resigned shrug, picked up his glass and resumed his pacing in the garden. (270)

At this point in the evening Don Pedro has not yet made his concluding claim that his system is not a nihilistic one. He tries to win over Garcia by telling him directly that he appreciates Garcia's suspicion that free will is in danger if motion and time are discarded. He knows that humans only very reluctantly depart with a belief in free will.

Although Garcia is perhaps finally convinced by Don Pedro's arguments, we are still left with the objections of Dr. de los Rios, who claims that his friend is quibbling with semantics. For him, it makes no difference if we "call a certain color a rate of vibrations or simply red" (278-79). In addition, in the last paragraph of the discussion scene, the narrator suspects pessimistically that "this idea of no motion and higher dimensions was, if anything, quite the thing for a lazy world" (279). He fears that it leads to a passive acceptance of whatever one experiences. In the end, Alfau does not provide any clear resolution to the discussion.

It is striking that Don Pedro does not use the idea of memory to buttress his arguments, and so it would be wrong to see his reflections as a development of Borges's famous essay. "New Refutation of Time" consists of two overlapping parts. The first article (A) appeared in 1944 in number 115 of Sur. As he himself notes, the second article (B), from 1946, is a revision of the first. Together they were issued as a brief pamphlet in Buenos Aires in 1947. Most readers today will probably know the essay from its appearance in the major collection of essays, Otras Inquisiciones, published in 1952 and translated into English in 1964.

As Borges notes, his refutation of time "is in all my books in one way or another" (1964:172). He mentions several specific instances, including two essays from Inquisiciones (1925) and "Sentirse en muerte" from Historia de la eternidad (1936). Thus Borges suggests that one could come to his ideas about time from several different sources.

Unlike Alfau, who follows up on researches in non-Euclidean geometry, ideas on the fourth dimension, and the proponents of hyperspace theory, Borges grounds his arguments in "Berkeley's idealism and Leibnitz's principle of indiscernibles" (173). From them he moves on to a discussion of the idealistic tradition in philosophy. He declares: "Hume has denied the existence of absolute space, in which each thing has its place; I deny the existence of one time, in which all events are linked together. To deny co-existence is no less difficult than to deny succession" (176). Borges has two ways of denying the existence of time. First of all, he declares that it is only in retrospect that two incidents become contemporaneous. The victory of Junin and the publication of Thomas De Quincey's diatribe against Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship both occurred in August 1824, but the events were autonomous then and only contemporaneous to posterity. Second, Borges refers to his own experience of memory, and he asks if we can postulate in the mind of an individual two identical moments or the same moment in two different individuals, and if so, does that possibility not lead us to believe that those identical moments are the same? For Borges, it does, and a "single repeated term" suffices to "confound the series of time" (178).

In article B, Borges gives a lengthier presentation of the relationship of his refutation of time to the various manifestations of the history of idealism in philosophy, and he states: "To deny time is really two denials: the denial of the succession of the terms of a series, the denial of the synchronism of the terms of two series. In fact, if each term is absolute, its relations are reduced to the consciousness that those relations exist" (185). Borges traces this idea in the work of Chuang Tzu, Schopenhauer, Plutarch, and Buddhist texts. He believes that the denial of temporal succession and the astronomical universe "is not horrible because of its unreality," but rather because it is "irreversible and ironbound" (187). He closes poetically: "Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river; it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I, alas, am Borges" (187). Thus for Borges, the end product of this train of thought is not nihilistic. He does not wish to conclude that we have no access to anything outside the mind. Instead, Borges confronts the limits of human existence, eternally subject to the categories by which we experience the world.

To interpret Alfau with respect to Borges succumbs to a temptation conceptualized in Chromos itself (16), for here Alfau expresses the concern that the United States will be Latin Americanized to the point where the culture of mother Spain itself will drop from public awareness. This tendency is already clearly present in the reviews of both Locos and Chromos, with their references to the "boom" in Latin American fiction. In acknowledging the relevance of Borges, we must not forget the Spanish novelists to whom Alfau should be compared in future essays. The most obvious connection is to the Unamuno of Niebla (1914), Como se hace una novela (1927), and La novela de Don Sandalio, jugador de ajedrez (1930). However, we should also consider the later novels of Ramon Perez de Ayala, beginning with Belarmino y Apolonio (1921), and some of the middle-period novels of Azorin, such as El caballero inactual (1928).

To analyze how the philosophical ideas of Chromos compare to the more playful and shorter Locos, written during the 1920s, would ideally pre-suppose an analysis of the earlier novel. Here I have only the space to note as a starting point that I believe that Locos as a whole does instantiate the views made by Alfau in the prologue of that novel. Alfau declares that "[t]ime and space do not exist" for his characters, and that that state of affairs "naturally ruins my work completely" (xiii). However, this is not a denial of time and space as such, for we are told at the beginning of the last paragraph:

One must bear in mind that these people are creating their own life and standards and are still novices at the game. In other words, the reader is expected to sit back and watch this procession of strange people and distorted phenomena without even a critical eye. To look for anything else, or to take seriously this bevy of irresponsible puppets and the inconsistency of the author, would not be advisable, as by doing so and imagining things that might lend themselves to misinterpretation, the reader would only disclose, beneath a more or less entertaining comedy of meaningless gestures, the vulgar aspects of a common tragedy. (xiv)

Although this injunction may be taken ironically, it is better to accept it at face value. Alfau has told us that in the world of fiction, the laws of space and time do not have to be obeyed. Through the self-reflexivity of his story and the dizzying, amusing identity changes of characters, we come to an increased awareness of the artificiality of all fiction, including the kind which would like to pretend to be mimetic.

Nevertheless, Alfau does not go so far as to say that in everyday life outside of the world of fiction time and space are abolished as well. Is the abolition of space and time which makes Locos a "comedy of meaningless gestures" the very stuff that turns everyday life into "a common tragedy"? This is the question posed by the narrative form of Chromos, which is written with embedded texts, such as Don Pedro's philosophical discourse, rather than "written in short stories" (xi) as is the earlier work. In an open-ended dialogical fashion, the problem shunted to the side in Locos is not solved when it is approached more directly in its sequel either. No final approval is given to the Moor's speculations.

After all, the last paragraph concludes with reference to the traditional notions of time and space, as the narrator asks:

But were those things from other times and other places really as great as they seemed now? Contrary to space, time increases the proportions of such events, but like the enlargements of a picture, what they gain in size, they lose in sharpness until they are so vague as to seem boundless. In either case it was for someone else to bring back their true colors, to integrate and then exhibit them in the primitive and complete equation of their significance. (348)

Reflecting on the two worn chromos, those of the serenade and the dying bullfighter, the narrator says that a greater author than he is needed to "span the years and distances, to elucidate the vaster meaning of these things in the longer view of history, from the heights of the present" (348). Thus the novel closes with an appeal to the categories of time and space as we traditionally understand them, as the narrator attempts to decide if the Spanish conquest of the western hemisphere beginning with Columbus was only an immigration distorted by self-aggrandizement. Don Pedro's philosophy renders such speculation pointless and would take the narrator back to the excessive self-consciousness and flair for analysis by which the Spanish "lose that racial characteristic of taking things for granted and leaving them to their own devices without inquiring into causes" (7). Thus an acceptance of Don Pedro's beliefs is in the end resisted by the narrator in an attempt not only to hold on to his sense of reality and free will but also to maintain his identity as a Spaniard in New York City.


Alfau, Felipe. Chromos. New York: Vintage, 1991. _ _ _ _ _. Locos. New York: Vintage, 1990. Borges, Jorge Luis. Other Inquisitions, 1937-1952. Trans. Ruth L. C. Simms. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1964. Henderson, Linda Dalrymple. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983. Hinton, Charles H. Speculations on the Fourth Dimension. Ed. Rudolf Rucker. New York: Dover, 1980. Ouspensky, P. D. A New Model of the Universe. New York: Knopf, 1944. _ _ _ _ _. Tertium Organum: The Third Canon of Thought; A Key to the Enigmas of the World. Rev. trans. by E. Kadloubovsky and P. D. Ouspensky. New York: Knopf, 1981. Rucker, Rudy. The Fourth Dimension: Toward a Geometry of Higher Reality. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
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Author:Christensen, Peter
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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