Looking Back on ‘Locos’

Fifty-two years ago, on June 27, 1936, I reviewed a book in The Nation. Very favorably. The author, Felipe Alfau, was said to be a young Spaniard writing in English. Spain was Republican then; the Franco revolt that turned into the Spanish Civil War began on July 19, three weeks and a day later. The charm exercised on me by Locos, therefore, cannot have been a matter of politics. And I was ignorant of Spain and Spanish. It was more like love. I was enamored of that book and never forgot it, though my memory of it, I now perceive on rereading, is somewhat distorted, as of an excited young love affair. Alfau, or his book, was evidently my fatal type, which I would meet again in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and more than once in Italo Calvino. But Locos was the first. And it appears to have been the author’s unique book, fittingly, as it were. I never heard of Alfau again, though for a time I used to ask about him whenever I met a Spaniard; not one knew his name. Maybe that was because he lived in the United States, if indeed he did. Launched more than fifty years ago by a Farrar and Rinehart club of so-called “Discoverers,” it has been rediscovered, by what means I don’t know.

To come back to it has been a bit eerie, at least on first sight—a cross between recognition and non-recognition. For example, what has stuck in my memory is a lengthy account of a police convention in Madrid that coincided merrily with a crime wave, the one giving rise to the other: crooks converged on the city, free to practice their trade while the police attended panel discussions and lectures on criminality. Well, it would be too much to say that none of that is in Locos; it is there but in the space of a few sentences and as a mere suggestion.

The fifth chapter, “The Wallet,” begins: “During the 19— police convention at Madrid, a very unfortunate occurrence took place. Something went wrong with the lighting system of the city and the whole metropolis was left in complete darkness.” It is the power failure that offers the assembled criminals their opportunity.

It was a most deplorable thing, for it coincided with the undesirable immigration of a regular herd of international crooks who since the beginning of the World War had migrated into Spain and now cooperated with resident crooks in a most energetic manner…. As if all these people had been waiting for that rare opportunity, the moment the lights went out in Madrid, thieves, gunmen, holdup men, pickpockets, in short all the members of the outlaw family, sprang up in every corner as though by enchantment.

Then:

It came to pass that during the Police Convention of 19—, Madrid …

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