Though not advertised as such in the United States, José Manuel Prieto’s Rex is actually the third volume in a trilogy that begins with the as-yet-untranslated Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia (Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia) and also includes the acclaimed Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (Prieto’s first novel published in English, in 2000). Prieto, who was born in Cuba in 1962 and spent twelve years in Russia, where he studied engineering, is a writer who ascribes great seriousness to ideas, as befits someone who grew up in a system steeped in ideology. Among many other things, the trilogy undertakes to explain the aesthetic underpinnings of the collapse of Communism, while gathering itself for a complicated indictment of contemporary fiction, a tortured denouncement that implicates Prieto himself.
Prieto portrays the adventures of J., who appears in slightly different guises in each of the three novels. J. first shows up as a St. Petersburg dandy in Enciclopedia, bent on initiating a Russian ingénue into the pleasures of materialism; in Nocturnal Butterflies he returns as a post-Soviet smuggler hunting for a rare butterfly on the shores of the Black Sea; and finally, in Rex he adopts the role of tutor to the son of nouveau riche Russians. His progression isn’t exactly linear, but it could be said that he moves from the pursuit of luxury as a saving grace to a more troubled vision of life’s (and art’s) decorative elements. In Prieto, frivolity is a serious matter, and in that sense he mines the same territory as Nabokov (an oft-cited influence) and even J.K. Huysmans, best known for the 1884 novel À Rebours, who prized a supersaturated mode of sensual overload and voluptuous connoisseurship.
Rex, fittingly, is set in the glossiest of sanctuaries: a Marbella mansion furnished in spectacularly bad taste (“the unbearable sheen of the unbearable furniture, the fake swords and suits of armor”), like something out of a Hello! magazine spread. To this Mecca comes J., to apply for the job of tutor to the son of wealthy Russian expatriates. His new employer is a man named Vasily, a clod in Versace suits who owes his fortune to the discovery of a new technique for the production of ersatz diamonds in a dazzling array of colors. Vasily has good taste in women, if in nothing else, and J. is fascinated by the boss’s lovely wife, Nelly, whose beauty is set off by her intelligence and an obscenely spectacular diamond necklace: “the nucleus of a star expanding outward in a sphere….birds and bands of angels…. Her throat…. The stones around her throat.”
Back in the Siberian forest, Vasily made a mistake: he pawned off some phony diamonds on a pair of Russian mobsters. Now he loiters nervously poolside, waiting for them to take their revenge. Meanwhile, his son Petya is instructed by J., with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as their sole textbook. J. consults Proust like an oracle, convinced that every possible situation can be explained by a passage from “the Book,” as he calls it. Soon he progresses from lecturing young Petya to advising the increasingly desperate Vasily, until even Proust is tinged with the glitz of the Marbella household (“Only the Writer’s enameled prose, his Versace prose”) and is commandeered in an impossible effort to save Vasily.
Prieto’s ingenious, if not maddening, storytelling method is to take Proustian rambles ahead of the action, analyzing events before they’re revealed to the reader. One of the early turning points of the plot comes when J. discovers that his employers are not as wealthy as he imagined. The manner in which he learns this is gallingly petty (Vasily has to borrow money from him to tip the doorman at a disco), but the highflown meditations that anticipate the discovery include a startling comparison of a scene from The Matrix and a (possibly trumped-up) scene from Proust, as well as increpations against Vasily (“a defenseless scoundrel, a petty thief, a small-time crook”) and angry ravings (“they hadn’t paid me! At all! Ersatz diamonds? They hadn’t paid me!”).