Aliens, Aliases, and Alibis: Alfau's 'Locos' as a Metaphysical Detective Story
Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Along with Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Flann O'Brien, and other experimental writers of the twenties, thirties, and forties, Felipe Alfau invented what we now call "postmodernism." Alfau, Borges, Nabokov, O'Brien: these writers explored the frightening and exhilarating space between naming and identity, between narration and story, between language and what it would describe. Is it any wonder that they wrote, themselves, from within the interstices of different languages and cultures?
Borges read and reread in English, as a child, the Doppelganger tales and detective stories of Poe, Doyle, and Stevenson; he wrote in Spanish, as an adult, his own metaphysical ficciones of doubles and detectives. Nabokov grew up in a prerevolutionary Saint Petersburg family where Russian was spoken to the servants, English in the nursery, and French at the table; he later composed or translated his novels in all three languages, while emigrating from one country to another to end, at last, in neutral Switzerland.(1) O'Brien (aka Myles na Gopaleen, aka Brian O'Nolan) lived his double life in divided Ireland; "Cruiskeen Lawn," his famous column in the Irish Times, was for many years written in Gaelic and English on alternate days. Such polyglot writers challenge conventional notions of a literary canon organized according to national languages and literatures.
Felipe Alfau, who began writing in English as a Spanish emigre to America, can now take,his proper place in this assembly. Alfau's case provokes similar questions about his classification within the canon: Is he a Spanish writer? an American writer? a hyphenated hybrid? Or perhaps, like Borges, Nabokov, and O'Brien, he is a different entity altogether, one of "the new |esperantists'" - twentieth-century writers whose fiction is shaped by their sense of linguistic and cultural exile.(3)
The works of emigre authors are often obsessively autobiographical and "often accused of being repetitious and circular," Asher Z. Milbauer argues, because they attempt to establish an equilibrium "between the |now' and the |then,' between the |before' and the |after'"(4) - and, one might add, between the "here" and the "there." Alfau's novels certainly seek such equilibrium. Each is a dazzling series of mises en abyme, in which Madrilenos are situated in Toledo and Spaniards in America; in which tales are told and retold; and in which a multitude of characters exchange names, identities, and stories in an extravaganza of incest, metamorphosis, and what Mary McCarthy calls "rather giddy mutability."(5) It is entirely appropriate that the title of his first novel, Locos, is itself multivalent, suggesting simultaneously the craziness of his characters, the dislocation that explains their craziness, and the imaginary "Cafe de los Locos" which provides a tenuous textual space (or locus) for them to congregate. The subtitle A Comedy of Gestures - which refers to the characteristic Spanish expression of meaning through physical motions rather than words, as Alfau explains in his prologue - is equally appropriate. Of this subtitle, Alfau remarks that any reader who makes the mistake of taking his novel seriously "would only disclose, beneath a more or less entertaining comedy of meaningless gestures, the vulgar aspects of a common tragedy" (xiv). That "common tragedy" might be the shared experience of exile, or the shared existential dilemma that exile embodies. Indeed, the reader who takes Locos seriously discovers that, for Alfau, individual identity - especially as it is constructed by papers," passports, and other textual documents - has a special meaning which resonates throughout the meta-fictional levels of his novel.
Alfau is an important early postmodernist, in part, because he anticipates what McCarthy calls "the modernist novel as detective story" (205), or the metaphysical detective story - a genre that is typical of literary postmodernism in its concern with parody, intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and hermeneutics. …