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Chromos (American Literature (Dalkey Archive))
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
There are so many interesting things to say about Felipe Alfau and his novel, "Chromos," that it is difficult to decide where to begin. There is the novel itself, of course, a complex and sometimes difficult post-modernist narrative written years before the appearance of the so-called post-modernists (Alfau was, in other words, ahead of his time). There is the history of the novel's publication, a fascinating tale in its own right. There is the fact that Alfau, a Spaniard who came to the United States at the age of fourteen, wrote "Chromos" and his earlier novel, "Locos," in English, rather than his native Spanish. And there is, finally, the biography and the views of the author himself-the former enigmatic, almost mysterious, in its obscurity; the latter disturbingly reactionary, reminiscent of Ezra Pound and forcing the reader to separate the man from his work.
"Chromos" is a series of narratives within narratives of a coterie of Spanish immigrants living in New York City sometime between the two World Wars. Among the main characters is Don Pedro Guzman O'Moor Algoracid, also known as Peter Guz and the Moor, and his close friend, Dr. Jose de los Rios, whom the Moor calls Dr. Jesuscristo. It is the Moor who first tells the novel's unidentified first person narrator to write the story of Spaniards living in New York, of the "Americaniards" as he calls them:
"You should write a book about the Americaniards, somebody should-but you have not written for a long time-anyway you could not write any more about your people in Spain-have been too long away, forgotten too much-don't know what it's all about and you could not write about Americans-don't know enough-impossible ever to understand another people. I could not understand them when I first came and every day I understand them less. We meet, we talk, but neither knows what it's all about-total confusion. My English was abominable when I arrived and everyday I speak it worse-impossible; can't understand a damn thing."
It is this request that frames the narrative, the Moor mysteriously taking the reluctant narrator to an old, dark, cockroach-infested basement apartment devoid of furniture (except for a book-filled bookcase), its walls covered by chromos-chromolithographs-"depicting people and scenes that came to life, but more like things remembered or imagined."
From this place, the unidentified narrator of "Chromos" relates his close relationship with the writer Garcia. It is Garcia who provides two narratives within the larger framing story, reading aloud to the narrator from two different works-one the seemingly "corny" and salacious multi-generational saga of the rise and decline of the Sandoval family in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Spain, the other the cinematic narrative of a Spaniard named Ramos who, in a Mephistophelian bargain, is given the ability to skip through time and emigrates to America in the early twentieth century. All the time, while Garcia narrates the stories contained in his two novels, the larger narrative of "Chromos" provides a first-person account of the day-to-day life of the Moor, Dr. de los Rios, Garcia, and the narrator. And the narrator, too, provides another narration as he sees into the mind-sees the imagination and dreams-of the seemingly forlorn, hapless character Fulano. Indeed, one of the most powerful narrative sequences of "Chromos" occurs near the end, when the narrator details Fulano's sordid, obsessive, sexual and homicidal dreams of a female store mannequin.
"Chromos" is, in short, a complex novel that reminds the reader of the post-modern writings of Borges, Calvino, Coover, Pynchon, and others. It is, in this sense, a remarkable achievement since it was written in 1948, long before such fictions became prominent. And this leads us to the next part of the story, the fact that while "Chromos" was written in 1948, it was not published until 1990, when it was nominated for the National Book Award. For this, we have an editor of the Dalkey Archive to thank. As related in a 1990 article in Newsday, reprinted at the Dalkey Archive web site ([...]
"In 1987, Steve Moore, [an editor at] a small publishing company, Dalkey Archive, found a copy of "Locos" [Alfau's 1936 novel] at a barn sale in Massachusetts. He paid $10 for it and after reading it, immediately found Mr. Alfau's number in the Manhattan phone book. Mr. Alfau, living alone in Chelsea, told them to publish the book if they wanted to; he didn't care what happened. When "Locos" did reasonably well, Mr. Alfau told them to use the money for somebody else's unpublished work. He had no use for money. Moore asked Mr. Alfau if he had written anything else. Mr. Alfau took "Chromos" out of the dresser where it had been since 1948."
While a native Spaniard and Spanish speaker, Alfau wrote in English and, for this reason, he has been compared to other writers who adopted another, non-native language for writing their fictions, writers like Conrad, Beckett, Nabokov, and Brodsky. Indeed, the first paragraph of "Chromos" adumbrates the theme not only of the immigrant living in a foreign country, but the way that immigrant experience is further occluded by language:
"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 afflicts 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."
So what is a reader of "Chromos" to make of all this? If you believe Alfau himself, not too much. When asked in an interview about the sale of his first novel, "Locos," which departed drastically from the commercially accepted novels of the time, he replied: "I got $250 for `Locos.' But you are right. In fact, I don't see how anybody could like my books or could even understand them. They are unreadable."
In that same interview, published in the Spring, 1993, edition of Review of Contemporary Fiction (and reprinted at the Dalkey Archive web site), Alfau-ninety years old at the time and demonstrating his reputation as iconoclastic, opinionated, curmudgeonly, and politically incorrect-is quoted as follows: "I think democracy is a disgrace. Machiavelli was absolutely right: the difference between tyranny and democracy is that in tyranny you need to serve only one master, whereas in a pluralistic society you have to obey many. I always thought Generalissimo Francisco Franco was a trustworthy ruler of Spain, and thus supported him. Since his death, the Iberian peninsula is in complete chaos. In fact, at the time of the Spanish Civil War, I championed Franco's cause in this country as much as I could."
While Alfau's politics and personality may seem anathema, "Chromos" is a remarkable work of literary imagination and narrative structure that should be read by anyone interested in modern and post-modern writing. While perhaps "unreadable," as Alfau says, by those looking for a traditional linear narrative with an unvarnished plot, "Chromos" is a joyride for those who like experimentation, complexity and intellectual pyrotechnics.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
David M.
Ms Lachmayr
CHROMOS; By Felip Alfau, Dalkey Press [(348 pages)(ISBN 0-916583 52-X)]
The story is about a group of Spanish émigrés, Don Pedreo, the writer Garcia and the Felipe Alfau himself and others in New York City.
This group travel in time and space in and around New York City eating drinking and talking in an existentialist mode--their free will being exercised in this meaningless world as we watch. This sets the stag; that all these persons in the novel are more than what they seem; their history goes back in time and forward again, giving the reader that extra level of understanding and enchanted confusion of the action/reaction of these characters.
Alfau bring the reader along with these émigrés and we become a part of this great adventure, albeit as an accidental tourist with Alfau being the tour guide. The novel always keeps changing and folding back on itself then goes forward to others places and times around the City and the world. Alfau drops names, names of painters, scientist, composers, philosophers and on and on not as name dropping per se, but rather to give a flavor of time and history that relates to how we dream--things always coming and going and seeming real, at least what we think is real. Alfau also expects us to know his/our history and art and knowing the meaning behind the art. It is his way of giving a "signpost" of information to the sweep of this work. He changes our view of each character so the reader is never safe in comfortable harbor of knowledge of where those characters are in time and space within the context of history which the novel exist in.
One may try to set the novel down and stop reading it, but why would one ever consider it? And to try to explain this work would be like trying to teach someone how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle by way of messages sent in a bottle over the ocean. CHROMOS is one of those books when you finish; you re-read it to see what was missed, again and again, stopping once the meaningless universe ends.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
I'll post a longer review of this work when I have time here. I once wrote a glowing book review about this book 10 years ago. This is one of these rare finds by Dalkey Archive press, which (admittedly) publishes esoteric and hard-to-read fiction. Out of nowhere, it was nominated for the National Book Award in 1990 or so, propelling this old man to some fame and notoriety.
I remember Proust's metaphor in one of his books about one's literary works existing as separate creatures from the author, like little girls dancing around the death bed of a dying author. I think Alfau was interviewed as saying something like, I wrote this book decades ago. Why all of a sudden this attention?
I used to give this book as the answer to the question of "what is your favorite book" because no one has ever heard of it (though I imagine university readers at the writing program where I taught, Johns Hopkins, would be sympathetic to this writing). Actually, although parts of it are long-winded, in general the narrative is conventional and full of old-fashioned storytelling. The characters engage in multiple philosophical conversations about time,reality and a lot of other things. I would compare this to Dostoevksy (in terms of the philosophical plane it travels on, not the plot, which is rather lackadaisical). Although there certainly is a tinge of European postmodern fiction here, unlike the fiction of Barth, there are not narrative tricks that distract from the story at hand. The end kind of wanders, but how fun it was getting there. You read for the set pieces, not for the overall plot. For variety, check out his short stories in Locos: A Comedy of Gestures. They are priceless gems.
You have to be in the right frame of mind for philosophical digressions and plot that advances mainly through conversation, but if you are, you won't find it difficult to get into this book at all.
To be honest, I've never met another person who has actually read this book, and it would be interesting to read responses from others who have read this book.
I should point out that I am writing these impressions about 10 years after reading the book. I remember almost nothing, and yet I remember how I felt reading it and the impressions it left on me. Does this count as a legitimate review? It will be fun knowing that the book is there waiting to be picked up again.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
David M.
Ms Lachmayr
CHROMOS; By Felip Alfau, Dalkey Press [(348 pages)(ISBN 0-916583 52-X)]
The story is about a group of Spanish émigrés, Don Pedreo, the writer Garcia and the Felipe Alfau himself and others in New York City.
This group travel in time and space in and around New York City eating drinking and talking in an existentialist mode--their free will being exercised in this meaningless world as we watch. This sets the stage; that all these persons in the novel are more than what they seem; their history goes back in time and forward again, giving the reader that extra level of understanding and enchanted confusion of the action/reaction of these characters.
Alfau bring the reader along with these émigrés and we become a part of this great adventure, albeit as an accidental tourist with Alfau being the tour guide. The novel always keeps changing and folding back on itself then goes forward to others places and times around the City and the world. Alfau drops names, names of painters, scientist, composers, philosophers and on and on not as name dropping per se, but rather to give a flavor of time and history that relates to how we dream--things always coming and going and seeming real, at least what we think is real. Alfau also expects us to know his/our history and art and knowing the meaning behind the art. It is his way of giving a "signpost" of information to the sweep of this work. He changes our view of each character so the reader is never safe in comfortable harbor of knowledge of where those characters are in time and space within the context of history which the novel exist in.
One may try to set the novel down and stop reading it, but why would one ever consider it? And to try to explain this work would be like trying to teach someone how to ride a two-wheeled bicycle by way of messages sent in a bottle over the ocean. CHROMOS is one of those books when you finish; you re-read it to see what was missed, again and again, stopping once the meaningless universe ends.
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3 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 1, 1999
Format: Paperback
It is hard to know what to say about this book. The first fify pages were the most invigorating I have read in a long time, full of interesting characters and observations as well as tremendous wit. I could hardly wait to read on, but as I did, I began to grow disappointed and eventually ran out of enthusiasm. I plodded to the end but it was heavy going. The novel-within-a-novel concept can work under certain circumstances but this is not one of them. The excerpt from the character Garcia's novel added nothing and were an irritating distraction from the main event. Alfau would have benefitted from having a good editor. All in all, an idea with enormous potential that starts off brilliantly but fades all too quickly.
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