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Chromos - Felipe Alfau

“Christ with castanets,” says Alfau without emphasis; “Cheeses!” as I’m wont to say myself.

It’s hard, for me, to know what exactly to say about Chromos. Brilliant. Incredible. All the usual predicate adjectives that seem to say so much while saying so little, other than exert with some vehemence that I was taken by the novel, tossed around for a couple weeks, then deposited on this side of the TBRs-Accomplished. In my case, ‘tossed around for a couple weeks’ may be considered warning as Chromos is neither quickly or easily read (well, unless you’re a troublesome Scot who can plow through dense material with the ease of an eel; the aforementioned Scot’s buck-passing review may be read, and should be read, here)

Whatever this novel is, it is not a sequel to Locos—not exactly. All the unruly characters from Locos reappear here although they now live in New York, dead characters are resurrected (all the characters of Locos had minds of their own and couldn’t be controlled by the narrator)—some make only cameo appearances, others reappear with stories of their own to tell, e.g. Garcia, whose novel and screenplay are pushed onto the narrator (who doesn’t appreciate either) and the reader, each provided slowly, in pieces, over the course of the entire novel; they can be as laborious as they are confusing; one the story of the Sandoval family, a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, the other of Julio Ramos, whose most urgent wishes are always granted and always at a cost.

Alfau has an appealing way with words, and a vocabulary that is humbling.

It was an inscription which he had read on a discarded sundial while on his way to Julio Ramos. The dial lay upon the grass at the margin of the little cemetery for Spanish Jews in the New Bowery. Its position was such that the shadow of the indicator did not fall upon the dial but somewhere else where time, if it passed, was not marked.
Time and place matter; motion is an illusion.
As one grows older, one prefers what has been, scarcely tolerates what is and decidedly abhors what is going to be. The greatest virtue of a thing, then, is that it has passed, the greatest defect, that it is yet to come. In one’s opinion things are bad and growing constantly worse. Every coming event means certain disaster. Among the things that are going to be, the vision of one’s death looms as the most execrable, tainting the horizon with the most somber and depressing hues. One sees every future event through funereal shadows, everything appears wrapped in ominous clouds of pessimism, whether it be social changes, new ideas or even the smallest change of routine. One dislikes everything modern, everything new, including young people, because all of these things represent the flow of time, because everything that enters the world is taking the place of something that is leaving it. One becomes a conservative and wants things to stay as they are because perhaps thus one will stay as one is.
This said in 1948—look around, it’s contemporary and all too familiar.

Alfau can be outrageously sarcastic and funny. In a scene where a young girl who aspires to be a poet approaches the poet who lives in her home (and on whom she has a childish crush) she is admonished with:

If I were you I would not write poetry but help my mother around the portería. And by the way, my dear Sappho, don’t call me ‘bard’ anymore, will you do me that favor? I resent it. It is embarrassing, as if I called you Saint Peter simply because you are always at the door.
And again when the narrator describes the writing of Garcia:
This has been done by masters of the trade and Garcia had taken in every stock situation with amazing powers of retention, but he had not put things together right and had used extraordinary discernment in not adding one single touch of originality.
Following a discourse on physics, motion, time and space, the final fifth of the novel is devoted to an incredible party. As it should be.

Recently I told another reader that he should read Locos before reading Chromos; in the Introduction to this volume, Joseph Coates says that Chromos is a jumping off point for reading Locos. Go figure. Not for everybody, but one helluva novel.

One final quote from early in the novel:

After all, reading is not a very good occupation. It is well to read when one has nothing better to do, but life is not that bad.