Bon Voyage, Captain Cap

Perhaps that was what led him to turn to earlier inspiration, and to revive Captain Cap, who had died in 1898. Perhaps, too, he was nostalgic for his Bohemian youth; the transition to respectable married life had not been particularly successful. In his column for May 23, 1901, he recalled “that poor Captain Cap,” and announced a new collection: “Speaking of Captain Cap, let us announce the upcoming appearance, published by Juven, of Captain Cap, His Life, His Work, and What Remains to Be Accomplished of His Program, by Mr. Alphonse Allais, cover and preface by Mr. George Auriol, table of contents by Mr. Armand Berthez.” Auriol and Berthez were old friends of both Allais and Cap, but the volume eventually appeared without them.

He didn’t have enough Cap material to fill a book, so he reworked some of his recent columns for Le Journal, and inserted Cap into stories from earlier collections: chapter 46, for example, first featured Allais himself as protagonist. It was Allais, after all, who had been the chemistry student, not Cap. The Captain, however, never seemed out of place in Allais’s speculations.

It was, as it turned out, his last book. A novel, Le Boomerang, an outrageously padded rehash of his short play Silvérie ou les Fonds hollandais (Silvérie, or the Dutch Fund), itself based on the story “Simple Malentendu” (“Simple Misunderstanding”), was serialized in Le Journal in 1903, but was the work of an anonymous ghostwriter.

Allais continued to write several columns a week for Le Journal and Le Sourire until his death in 1905, at the age of 51. He was increasingly forgetful, drank too much, racked up debt, and put on weight; his marriage crumbled. The last years were marked by a slow and sad decline.

But Captain Cap lived on. It remained in print, with a variety of imaginary Cap portraits gracing the covers of successive editions. The first translation that I know of was into Czech, by one Jindřich Hořejší, in 1923. Fittingly, he also translated Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk into French; he was apparently running a one-man cultural exchange of hard-drinking tricksters. Enrico Piceni translated Cap into Italian in 1930; he also brought Allais’s novel, L’Affaire Blaireau, to Italian readers, and a collection of short stories, under the title Racconti Idioti. Juan Esteban Fassio, the founder of the Instituto de Altos Estudios Patafisicos de Buenos Aires, frequented by such porteño literary heavyweights as Borges and Cortázar, transmuted Cap into fine Argentine Castilian in 1972. The next year, Franco de Sousa brought out a Portuguese edition, about which I have no interesting tidbits, I’m afraid.

There has even been a sequel. In 1991, André Grall, a member of the distinguished A3 (Académie Alphonse Allais), published Le Retour du Captain Cap: le joyeux compère d’Alphonse Allais (The Return of Captain Cap: Alphonse Allais’s Merry Sidekick). The good Captain is reanimated to take on politics, AIDS, soccer, German reunification, the press, movies, war, religion, and other updated topics. (Parenthetically, I must confess I haven’t read it; I’m quoting the blurb.) His fellow A3 members awarded him the Prix Alphonse Allais in 1992, so they must have liked it.

Given its wide and enduring popularity, why has there been no English translation until now? Heaven knows; but now there is. Bon voyage, Captain Cap!

 -Doug Skinner
New York City
September, 2013




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