There’s a nice essay at the end of Locos by Mary McCarthy, which is a sort of summing-up of most of my thoughts on the work by someone who’s paid a bit more attention. It’s particularly astute, I feel, in its observation that the one thing that hasn’t truly withstood the test of time are the clumsier metafictional elements – Alfau’s constant complaints, in the first half of the book at least (he seems to forget about them in the second half) that his characters are beyond his control – a familiar enough post-modernist conceit, I’m sure you’ll agree, but this was published in 1936 (i.e. about 40 years before the social conditions existed whereby our artists were able to interpret the world this way) – though maybe it’s because, as always with this conceit, one feels the artist protests too much; that in reality he’s perfectly in charge. A better conceit – and one less popular in later times, perhaps – is that one where the author seeks to trick his own characters into situations they wouldn’t have otherwise got into, for the purposes of his own designs.
Like a few books that I (Vila-Matas) and others (Bolaño, Sebald) have been reading of late, Locos is full of references and puzzles; but in Alfau’s world these are all self-contained. The work is a series of short stories, which can be read as entirely separate entities, but which are really interlocking. (Alfau the narrator complains, on occasion, when one character makes an appearance in the wrong short story). Indeed, taken on their own, the stories can appear quite trivial, but taken as a whole they construct a marvellous world of their own, the events in some stories becoming only truly explained by trivial asides in others. One can lay aside the post-modern conceits above, but the conceit which really works in this novel is the distinction – or lack of it – between characters in the work and characters in real life: that there is this real world in which the author Alfau exists, and where he meets people and to whom things happen, and this real world inspires the characters and the events in the stories – and that the artist’s creation is a blending of this reality and imagination, where real characters are bent to artistic purposes, often to the extent that because of this the characters themselves become inconsistent, their relations are mixed up, the time sequences are mixed up. A lot of this I admit I only sensed in my reading (for I am a bad and forgetful reader), but Mary McCarthy also had a couple of examples (of the: but wouldn’t that make her her own mother? variety); and it does all seem to be part of the plan, as also does his subtle use of symbols – most of which passed me by. I suspect there are many hidden things in this text.
Why was Alfau’s work ignored on publication and until recently neglected? – Was he before his time with his post-modernist games? Perhaps – in the Anglo-Saxon world at least: it feels quite close though, for example, to Unamuno. But I wonder if his problem wasn’t more than he was a Spanish writer who wrote in English (he moved from Spain to New York). Because the novel reads like a Spanish novel that’s been translated into English: it’s set in Spain; it explores the Spanish character. We know how little the English-speaking world cares for foreign novels (though they may have done more back then); but at the same time, of course, because he wrote in English and got nowhere in the English-speaking world, he was lost too to the Spanish, who might otherwise have better appreciated him.