A controversial finalist for the National Book Award in 1990, Chromos is one of the true masterpieces of post-World War II fiction. Written in the 1940s but left unpublished until 1990, Chromos anticipated the fictional inventions of a whole American generation: Barth, Coover, Pynchon, Sorrentino, Gaddis.
On one level, Chromos is the American immigration novel par excellence. Its opening line is: “The moment one learns English, complications set in.” He might well have said, “The moment one sets foot in America”: Alfau’s characters are Spanish immigrants who have one leg in Spanish culture and the other in the confusing, warped, unfriendly Nuevo Mundo of New York City, a lost tribe stranded between two mutually hostile worlds.
Chromos is a wildly comic novel, but it’s also strangely apocalyptic, and its comedy is always creeping towards point zero and utter darkness.
Spanish novelist and poet Felipe Alfau (1902-1999) was born in Barcelona, made his living as a translator, and wrote two novels in English, Chromos and Locos. His work was largely ignored during his lifetime: he made $250 for Locos, and Chromos sat in a desk drawer from 1948 to 1990. On publication, it was nominated for the 1990 National Book Award. Alfau died in a New York City nursing home in 1999.