Felipe Alfau’s gem of a novel Locos (or is it a collection of short stories?) sustains a crazed quest for the meaning of identity. Slip sliding between reality and fiction, chaos and order, we are introduced to the demented characters congregating at Toledo’s Café de los Locos, pleading for inclusion in the stories of an author also metafictively named Felipe Alfau.

Like Alfau’s characters, this book has had multiple lives and deaths. Finally published in 1936 by Dalkey Press, eight years after it was written, Locos was received with critical acclaim but it never sold, and so it slunk away unnoticed. Nearly half a century later, an editor at Dalkey chanced upon a battered copy in a barn sale in Massachussetts. He fell in love and Locos was republished in 1987. Since then it has enjoyed bursts of enthusiasm, and endured longer silences.

While Locos can be frustrating in its resistance to certainty and resolution, it is impossible not to be bewitched by the cast of characters merrily dancing through the text. They delight in ignoring their author, who might carefully lay a scene, only for unscripted characters to scheme their way into it. And they are impolite, constantly interrupting and correcting the author even as he writes.

Lunarito, for example, is one habitué of the Café de los Locos whose identity bleeds through several stories. In ‘A Romance of Dogs’ she is Garcia’s loyal maid while Garcia himself is at times either a poet or a fingerprint expert. In ‘The Necrophil’ Lunarito is living with Garcia and killing him. By ‘A Character’ she is ‘one-fourth daughter, one-fourth wife, one-fourth maid and one-fourth secretary’ to Don Laureano Baez, and later still in ‘Chinelato’ a murderer escaping punishment through marriage to Gaston Bejarano.

Alfau’s tales are quirky romps where the author, characters and reader all participate in the vain hope of dampening the bewildering confusion. Take the case of Fulano, over whom a ‘cloud of inattention’ hangs. He pleads with Alfau to be written into a story so that he might become important. Alfau’s friend, Dr José de los Rios, suggests suicide as the best route to fame. Fulano is instructed to throw himself off a bridge after leaving behind a suicide note pinned to his coat. Fulano’s fame will be secured when the press headline the story. But Fulano deviates from the script. He leaves the prescribed items, but then hides, hoping to see the headlines himself. The plan is scuppered by an escaped convict substituting his own coat for Fulano’s and assuming his identity. The newspapers duly report the criminal’s suicide. In utter despair the real Fulano commits a real suicide by jumping off the bridge.

Locos is extraordinary in its originality, and clearly ahead of its time. It borrows from old traditions of storytelling, but it also anticipates post modernism. I read and reread it because in brief, unexpected moments the madness of the text lessens the pain of being human. Each time I pick it up I allow myself to fall in love again at the Café de los Locos.

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