The Short Version: An emotional thrill-ride, novel in stories—stories where the characters rebel, invade other stories, appear under different names, and cause various sorts of mayhem, confusion, and headaches for the author/narrator(s). Nicholls is correct on this one (is there ever any doubt?) As the stories may be read in any order, there’s probably no such thing as a spoiler. Read the Prologue; Mary McCarthy’s Afterword is optional.
The Long Version:
Identity— Sitting with his friend, Dr. José de los Rios, in the Café de los Locos, the author/narrator character-hunts from among the no-longer-needed characters assembled in the café before being set upon by an old acquaintance, Fulano, a character who has had incredible trouble ever being noticed by those he encounters. Fulano is driven to be famous, recognized, to matter. At the suggestion of Dr. de los Rios, Fulano attempts to fake a suicide with the goal of attaining some sort of notoriety. Attempts. The effort backfires in the worst possible way. Following another confrontation with Sr. de los Rios and the author (this is how he refers to himself as a character), Fulano makes one additional stab at immortality. But then…no freakin’ way. [It occurs to me that Fulano is almost an anagram for No Alfau—hmm].
A Character— While awaiting the arrival of his host, the author begins a story about Gaston Bejarano, a character known for his rebelliousness and independence; with the arrival of his host, the author abandons said story only to have Bejarano assume control and launch out on his own where he meets Lunarito, during a downpour, and who agrees to meeting Gaston at some point in the future. (Are Gaston Bejarano and Lunarito the same couple seen in the Café de los Locos? No! Surely not. That was Pepe Bejarano fondling the leg of Lunarito). Besides, according to Gaston, he’s a character while Lunarito is real. When the author regains control of the story, he’s faced with a problem: he doesn’t want to make Lunarito a character in his story (he has enough characters), and if he makes her more fictional, she’s no longer the ideal Gaston so desperately wants, on the other hand, he can’t make Gaston more real, because that’s not what authors do—they create characters. For the reader’s benefit, it’s at this point that the author feels obliged to present the story of how he came to know Gaston. It was much earlier on, and through his friend, Dr. de los Rios, who was treating Gaston, who was then generally called El Cogote. [But, wait! Hold on. Wasn’t El Cogote one of the characters at Café de los Locos? Wasn’t he the one whose altercation with a woman was interrupted by a nun—a very attractive nun? Sister Carmela, wasn’t it? And come to think of it, wasn’t the bartender’s last name Baez? The same as Lunarito’s last name?] It was on a visit to see El Cogote that Dr. de los Rios explained El Cogote’s precarious condition (apparently pre-HIPAA), and how as a youth, El Cogote had been separated from his beloved when her father had sent her to live in a convent. Their arrival at the home of El Gogote was met by a fat woman in a red kimono who led them down a dark hall to the ailing man’s room. Carmen, the woman in red, informs them of El Cogote’s delirious ravings over a woman he’d met who’d been murdered, a woman named Lunarito. El Cogote relates a nightmare he’s had, in which he pushes his sister in a room in the family home, the room the entire had always been afraid of, only to find, when the door was opened, that his sister had aged, had the face of Lunarito, and accused him of having killed her. [Dreams? Whaddaya gonna do?] Desperately calling out into the house, El Cogote, pleads that Lunarito appear to him before he dies, and she does, and is the woman in red. It’s at this point that the author is compelled to interrupt his narrative one more time, explaining how Gaston (El Cogote), actually came to know Lunarito; it was through the author’s friend, Don Laureano Baez, and did you really think I’d tell you everything, or did it just feel that way?
[I’m writing these summaries as I read the stories; I hereby promise to begin making each more brief—at least, I’ll try, fearing for losing your interest and the imposition I might be making on GR real estate. Besides, I suspect you’re starting to get the picture on how this novel works.]
The Beggar— In an unusual decision to abandon a career such as his (a never-mentioned career), Garcia agrees to take a position offered him by Don Gil Bejarano [Gil, the beggar from the Café de los Locos? Bejarano? Bejarano? Is Bejarano Spanish for Smith?] as a fingerprint expert [um, you may notice the title of the following story]. With his first payday, then, a month and a half in the future, Garcia must get by on the few coins he has—the most valuable of which he accidentally gives a beggar. In an attempt to regain those funds, he proceeds to call on the beggar (one Don Laureano Baez), where he also meets the beggar’s lovely daughter, Lunarito [surprised?], and totally will you never learn?
Fingerprints— Don Gil Bejarano y Roca (Gil, the beggar from the Café de los Locos?) hopes his brother-in-law, the Prefect, will eventually lend him the money to publish Gil’s father’s monograph and his own articles, in a volume that will conclusively demonstrate that his father (Don Esteban Bejarano y Ulloa) is the single-source discoverer of the individuality of fingerprints. Gil is driven to the fame that a national awareness of his father’s discovery will enable: “The Bejarano family had been always rather obscure and unimportant.” (Fulano-esque?) At the home Gil shares with his wife, Felisa, and children, Gaston, Pepe, Mignon, and Carmen [If Gaston, Pepe, and Carmen (the woman in the red kimono, Lunarito, or Sister Carmella?) were each at the Café de los Locos, was Mignon in the study with a candlestick?] an evening with Padre Inocencio (café denizen?) is interrupted by a visit from the Prefect, who eventually arrests Gil, based on fingerprints verified by Garcia (see above) on a charge of you gotta be kiddin’ me. Still checking? Do I need to add a footnote?
The Wallet— When a massive power failure causes a Madrid-wide blackout during a 19— international police convention, all the European criminals are drawn to the city for its easy pickings which causes considerable embarrassment for the Prefect. An argument with his nephew, Pepe, who has recently been expelled from school in England, is salvaged when the Prefect reveals to Pepe that his brother, Gaston, is now a professional pimp (El Cogote!) As they prepare to go their separate ways for the evening, a bet is wagered on whom will get home safely without being mugged. Consequently, Chesses H. Havarti!
Chinelato: I The Ogre— Juan Chinelato (aka Señor Olózaga, and by the way, a giant), after an impoverished life as an orphan in China, lives a very comfortable life in Madrid (except for the pesky boys who taunt him every morning). One day he makes his way to the home of Don Esteban Bejarano y Ulloa (the Spanish discoverer of fingerprints) [Can Chinelato be the hypothetical Chinaman in “Fingerprints”?]
II The Black Mandarin— Two unnamed characters (Dr. de los Rios and the narrator/author?) discuss the life of The Black Mandarin (aka Juan Chinelato, aka Señor Olózaga), the reality of his reputation for bigamy, and his history as a showman extraordinaire.
III Tia Mariquita— Two unnamed characters (one, presumably, the author/narrator) share the story of Olózaga’s last wife—the senile Tia Mariquita, as well as Olózaga’s numerous failed businesses (to include one with Laureano Baez), and his continued pursuit of Lunarito. Both she and her father Good grief, we’re approaching finales, read the damn book). Olózaga’s secretary, Cendreras, has an unfortunate time at the home of Laureano Baez.
The Necrophil— The religious Doña Micaela Valverde, has a love affair with death—in fact, she dies frequently and for longer and longer periods of time. Her physician, Dr. de los Rios, prescribes an abortion, suicide, or It’s rainin’ men. Hallelujah! Snap outta it; ain’t agonna tell you Her relevance to the overall story, aside from Cendreras being her third husband and who the fuck knows
A Romance of Dogs: I Students— The author/narrator reveals his identity, claim’s the novel’s autobiographical origins, describes schooldays with his three friends—Julio Cavañas (called Cavañitas), Pepe Bejarano, and one Felipe Alfau; he goes on to relate their adoration of Padre Inocenio and Sister Carmela (Pepe’s sister, Carmen). Oh, yeah, couple bad ass dogs torment Gar— [oops, almost revealed the author/narrator, and that woulda been Really? Still you look?
II Spring— One author/narrator’s last days with another author narrator. A novel in stories—stories end with the Spring.
Wow! Looking back over the books I’ve read YTD, all those 4 and 5 stars, I can’t really say this is as good as any particular one of them; I can say this may be my favorite to date. This is one I’d actually ask some of you to read. T’were it possible, this one would get a sky full of stars. I liked this one more than Nicholls did; in my defense, he’s merely a pup, a curmudgeon-in-training. Real curmudgeons are profanely sentimental.