Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Written when Felipe Alfau, a Spanish immigrant, was twenty-six years old and living in New York, Locos: A Comedy of Gestures was published eight years later in 1936. Alfau’s Old Tales from Spain, a collection of children’s stories, was published in 1929. Although he produced a second novel, Chromos: A Parody of Truth (1948), Alfau faded from view, although Chromos was later nominated for a National Book Award in 1990. Dalkey Archive Press reissued Locos in 1989, publishing Chromos and a collection of his poetry three years later.

The structure of Locos, in which characters’ names change as they intrude on one another’s dramas, gives the book a dreamlike, surreal texture. Like Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which related characters have an unstoppable need to have their story articulated by the writer, Alfau’s creations step out of the action to comment on or even attempt to redirect events. Critics have further compared Alfau’s book to the works of Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jorge Luís Borges, who share similar qualities of Magical Realism and postmodernism. Locos also resembles Flan O’Brien’s At Swim-Two Birds (1939), which also employs a story-within-a-story structure. Two facts make Locos a phenomenon unto itself: None of these writers appears to have had any knowledge of Alfau’s anachronistic stories, and a half century of obscurity elapsed before the book was republished to greater acclaim than had met its original printing.

In Chromos, a fictionalized Alfau gazes by matchlight at old pictures from a Spanish calendar. He imagines a novel about the same characters as those in Locos, living lives quite separate from that of their adopted home, Manhattan. This ability to write of separation from the outside world has finally earned Alfau a long overdue reputation as a complex and clever storyteller.