Puttin' on the Glitz: José Manuel Prieto's Rex
Enciclopedia is a fascinating book, in some ways the key to the more remote fictional universes of Nocturnal Butterflies and Rex. It's far from straightforward--it's composed, as might be expected, in the form of an encyclopedia, and is conceived as a series of notes in which J. comments on the process by which he goes about writing another novel--but in it J. speaks plainly about some of the matters only indirectly addressed in the other two volumes of the trilogy, particularly the end of Communism, which Prieto dubs the "Fall of the Empire." J., it is revealed, was once a fervent young socialist, someone who upon first listening to Mozart was "unpleasantly surprised and disgusted by its irresponsible lightness." Then came his gradual awakening. "I learned to live without the security, the hope, the center of the Universe that was the Doctrine...the knowledge that I had staked everything on a fake emperor." Communism, he decides, was "a papier-mâché Utopia," full of the poorest imitations of Western products and institutions.
So J. begins to find delight in material things, in craftsmanship, in the artifacts of culture. Swiss chocolates, Dutch cheeses and minty fluoride toothpaste ("Frivolity attacked the carbon chains of the EMPIRE with the devastating force of FLUORIDE") are now licit indulgences, as is Mozart and, by extension, writers like Proust and Nabokov. The more ornamental and beautifully crafted, the more inimical to the shoddy utilitarianism of Soviet Russia (or Cuba). With the fervor of a convert, J. sets out to bring a young flute player, Anastasia (a k a Linda), into the materialist fold. He seduces her with the strange promise to hire her as the protagonist of the novel he is writing--she will act the part and J. will transfer the scenes to paper--and regales her with fashionable clothes and expensive dinners. By learning to accept frivolous things, she will confirm J.'s cautious new hedonism.
In Enciclopedia there's also an interesting section on what it means to J. to be Cuban. In all three novels, the protagonist's Cubanness is treated as something incidental, only evident in the odd detail. And yet, the very offhandedness of the references and their unexpectedness in the context (Russian and European) marks the trilogy. In Enciclopedia, only halfway through the book does the reader learn where J. is from: "I was, surprisingly, Cuban." Prieto's Cubanness, too, can also seem almost accidental, his language revealing little if anything of the country where he was born. This was a conscious choice, as he explains in an interview: "There's a mistaken idea according to which the author is classified by the language in which his book is written. If you read one of my books you don't know where the author's from, because it's written in a neutral language, a Spanish without regionalisms. It's a choice, neither a bad thing nor a good thing."
This choice has implications for the fate of Prieto's novels in translation. They're far from easy books to translate, but their language is eminently renderable. Prieto's arcanities are personal, not local or national, and the puzzlelike quality of his storytelling and prose makes him a rewarding challenge for the translator. Esther Allen not only masters Prieto's circling, subject-and-verb-swallowing sentences but also comes up with inspired minutiae like "toothlet locking into toothlet" and "blued armor." She understands his fetish for detail, evident in all the meticulously translated instants of extreme close-up (a cellphone call: "little blue screen to pink earlobe") and the descriptions of massively magnified eyes, as if viewed through a jeweler's loupe.
And, of course, Allen also has to grapple with all the quotes, because Rex is defined by its use of quotation. Proust is the most frequently featured author, but the novel is so woven with references and citations--some explicit, most not--that it's often hard (for this reader, at least) to tell when Prieto gives way to Isak Dinesen or H.G. Wells or Borges (or one of at least fifty other writers cited in the Author's Note). Not all of the allusions are highbrow. Besides the reference to The Matrix, there are neat nods to Nintendo and Star Wars, all spliced smoothly into the story. There's no doubting Prieto's erudition, high or low, though he does seem to slyly allude (in a reference to Swift, no less) to an undignified source of quote-mining: "Assisted by a cloud of instantaneous beings or winged homunculi, the yahoos.... bring back, in their beaks, fragments and passages of all books.... All the wisdom of the Book, of all books, before my eyes, infinitely wise, fabulously rich."
Looming large in J.'s psyche are two abstract figures, the Writer and the Commentator. At first, the reader assumes that the Writer is Proust (the omnipresent Book is a kind of one-volume version of Remembrance of Things Past), but it gradually becomes clear that the Writer is a composite figure, a compendium of literary giants. This Writer, a godlike figure, represents all that is great and true in fiction. His corrupt counterpart in Rex--an incomparably lesser figure, J.'s bête noire--is the Commentator. Readers who don't pick up on the fact that the Writer is a multivalent being are provided with an explanation in the Author's Note, but no such explanation is supplied for the Commentator. Who is he? In general terms he is the ultimate yahoo, the representative of a parasitic vein of modern literature that feeds on the great Writers of the past. He might be a writer himself, or a critic (or a reviewer of this book!). More specifically, he might be Borges (though elsewhere Prieto seems to class Borges as a Writer). Most specifically, he is almost certainly J., and also Prieto himself.
The novel, after all, is divided into sections labeled "Commentaries," and Prieto, with his endless quoting, is the most ostentatious parasite imaginable, chewing up and digesting countless literary tidbits. More subtly, the novel is written in the form of commentary on a plot that seems almost beside the point. And the plot revolves around imitations (the fake diamonds). The more loudly J. attacks the Commentator, the more eagerly Prieto seems to incriminate himself. And J.'s attacks on the Commentator and his proxies are scathing. Early on, he watches a group of musicians play cover songs at a disco in Marbella and judges them "hardened and old as commentators.... Having lost, generationally, their skill, their faith in new songs." They're too "cool" to bring any passion or newness to their singing. Later on, he describes what it's like to read a work cobbled together from quotes. The quotes themselves are fine, he says, but "then back again to the feigned taciturnity, the mania for the right word, the con job of the precise adjective.... Abstract gestures, paper frenzies, never a pair of hands raised to the breast in an outburst of true emotion."
This is brave, or at least bravado, because Prieto knows that he's describing his own writing. The glitter of Marbella is a tease, and the Mafiosi are only window dressing. Even the question of adaptation to a post-Communist world loses its urgency in this final volume of the trilogy. The real drama is a staging of the losing battle that Prieto's generation (and maybe all writers since Flaubert, depending on how you read Prieto) must wage against the literary titans of the past. Prieto's perversely heroic project is to succumb, to be tedious and recherché and secondhand, to wallow in his belatedness, to smother the real flashes of originality that surface here (and, more frequently, in Enciclopedia). The poignancy of this kamikaze mission is glimpsed more than once, particularly in a section in which J. seems to imagine rewriting the book, "erasing all trace of the Commentator's work, so that those years, seen from distant points on the scale, would not remain years of coldness, written by a man who did not fall in love, did not have children, and saw himself brought by the very nature of his stories--their bloodless nature--to a dubious protagonism."
This "dubious protagonism"--the protagonism of a J. who allows us glimpses of a possible José Manuel Prieto--may be the best a novelist can hope for at this anxious stage of literary history. And yet, despite himself, Prieto dreams of better. The harebrained scheme that J. and Nelly devise to escape the Mafiosi involves declaring Vasily the long-lost king of Russia (Vasily Rex), thus raising him above the gangsters' reach. Prieto's vision of Vasily as king swallows up the second half of the book and seems truly rapturous, as if a return to an uncomplicated form of divine rule might also mean the resurrection of the Writer. But his reveries are much less convincing than his skepticism, and the book closes up on itself, ejecting the reader from its hermetic embrace.