I'm not sure how I came to this book, but it showed up in some kind of recommended reading list at some point (on metafiction, perhaps), and I took note of it. And now, here I am, a few years later, reading it. And much of it was great!
Alfau plays with the novel form, as writers of the modernist era often did. I am not sure he wholly succeeds, as the work seems more like a collection of linked stories than a novel. Some read Dubliners as a novel, for instance, but I still think of it as a collection; that said, this piece might be more like Winesburg, Ohio, which while also not fully a novel to me is not also fully a collection of stories that stand on their own. Alfau's stories can be read on their own, but the links are useful to understanding the whole. While the stories can be read in any order, the first half of the book focuses a lot on the process of creating a novel.
We start the book with a character--or person--who is slated to be important. That is his role in life. But no matter what he does, he is ignored, as he is in the story. Instead, we go to a cafe where the rest of the book's characters are introduced to us in various forms.
The next chapter focuses on a character who decides to take over in the absence of the author, who had gone off to enjoy some time with friends, intending to take up with the character later. Alas, the character gets into so much trouble on his own that extricating him proves challenging for the author upon his return. What follows is a confusing muddle. The character meets a person from real life. The person from real life then becomes a character. The character proves to have been another character, who had earlier run off with a different woman. And on and on.
In the process of that story, we are introduced to the character of a beggar, which is the topic of the next story/chapter. In it, a professional beggar manages to find a job. But the job does not begin for a month, so the beggar has plans to continue in the begging profession for a while longer, but he accidentally gives away his last coin to another beggar. Said other beggar is an expert, who lives the life of a rich man when not on the twelve-hour begging shift. The one beggar goes to the other to beg his last coin back, and what ensues is a shift in the nature of begging and professionality. This piece proves much less playful in terms of form than the previous chapters--save for some short comments from the author about how he had ruined the character's plans for himself--which is a good thing insofar as the constant interceding of author and character into each other's narratives can wear thin when overused.
The focus on shifting positions in "The Beggar" plays out again and again. In the next chapter, an expert on "Fingerprints" has his technological expertise and certainty turned against him. Fingerprints don't lie, he asserts, and if his father's memory is to be preserved, he must go through with his actions. Likewise, in the chapter after that, "The Wallet," victims become bandits become heroes. The story is set in Madrid at a time when crime is rappant. Lights go out at night, and everyone takes to committing crimes in the streets. The prefect makes a bet that as soon as a young man leaves his side, he will be mugged. Said mugging in fact occurs--or rather, pickpocketing--but the young man is fast and attacks the would-be thief and recovers his wallet. Only, what he gains is not his wallet but someone else's. So begins a series of crimes and mistakes that will carry through the night.
"Chinelato" is a grand epic of a tale, an adventure story, about a man who spends time in the Philliphines and Spain, a man whose dark skin--but also his dubious morals (he flits from woman to woman, wife to wife)--keeps him marrying a woman he sets his eyes on. We come across him in different ways and from different points of view, and incidents and characters from other stories in this collection flit in and out, giving us small insights into other events that happened elsewhere. But still, this piece failed to hold my interest very well. And in fact, as the stories in the book become less experimental, beginning with this story, Alfau's book becomes almost completely straightforward--no more metafictional destruction of the story as it occurs.
The text ends with a two-part piece called "A Romance of Dogs"--a single character and dogs seeming to be the main items that keep the two parts together. In the first half, the character is in school. Dogs try to bite him before and after each day, add to his nightmares. But the main text of the story is about a priest who commits suicide for unknown reasons, though we suspect it has something to do with his love for one of the nuns, who runs off one day and elopes. The second half of the story involves the same character later in life and his growing insanity, as he obsesses over springtime.
Mary McCarthy's afterword shows how the characters show up in different stories. I was aware of this, but without reading the book a second time, it would be impossible for me to have seen just how much. Many characters have two or three names, so it's hard to keep track of them at times across the stories.