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!”).
As this language and range of reference suggests, Prieto applies nineteenth-century stylings, including direct address of the reader (or of the grown-up Petya, the purported recipient of his former tutor’s confidences), to highly contemporary scenes. This leads to some gorgeous passages in which Prieto describes ordinary objects as if they’re part of an alien landscape, simultaneously futuristic and archaic (shades of Nabokov’s Ada). A cellphone trills and lights up with a green light, “like a goldfinch with a mottled throat”; bathroom faucets are “plump as birds with puffed-out plumage”; a pool is like “the submerged flank of an enormous blue fish.” Metaphor is used to create a veritable menagerie of commodities, with conspicuous objects fleshed out as gaudy beasts. Under Prieto’s X-ray gaze, even humans register as high-tech goods. The breasts of Vasily’s mistress, Larissa, are “rosy in the afternoon light, soft and round. The veins or blood vessels beneath her skin like those new telephones made of translucent plastic, designed to show the electronics running through them.” And banal palaces of consumption, like the mall, become exotic, fragile constructions. Following Vasily past the shops, J. has a vision of him as “a Minotaur…unacquainted with the brittle nature of glass,” breaking through the walls and “carrying everything off with him: wireless phones, juicers, garlands of colored lights for the garden.”
If all of this is reminiscent of a fashion ad, the effect may not be accidental. Rex is well stocked with high-end brand names. As mentioned, there’s Versace, of which J. disapproves: Vasily “should have paid only half the money he’d shelled out…to a tailor who could have cut him a good Savile Row suit with no gold-toned buttons, no fake monogram on the chest.” And there’s Lagerfeld, summoned when Nelly morphs unexpectedly into a bird, her “thighs covered with feathers like the thighs of a Lagerfeld model.” In Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia, J. baptizes his ingénue with the name Linda, after supermodel Linda Evangelista. He also muses that Enciclopedia should ideally take the form of a fashion magazine. “I’d insert strips perfumed with OPIUM, with Anaïs Anaïs…I’d like it to be sold at the newsstands of big train stations, its resemblance to Vogue confusing the bored traveler.”
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.