Danger, Diamonds In A Dazzling Word Symphony

Cover: 'Rex'
Rex
By Jose Manuel Prieto, translated by Esther Allen
Hardcover, 321 pages
Grove Press
List Price: $24

Read An Excerpt

Jose Manuel Prieto

Born in Cuba, Jose Manuel Prieto is a professor of Russian history in Mexico City. hide caption

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At the start of his confounding, glimmering and literature-besotted novel Rex, author Jose Manuel Prieto drops a big hint as to what he has in mind. His unnamed narrator, a young Spanish-speaking Russophile of incredible erudition, tells us about an editor's bewilderment upon reading Remembrance of Things Past, Proust's masterpiece, at the time it had just been completed. "He quested across that vast sea — which in itself was an unprecedented extravagance, a technique from somewhere beyond the skies — in search of the skiffs and galleons of its characters and found very few of them, and those few as if becalmed. And he thought, 'Can this be a story? Is it a book even?' "

Prieto and his translator, Esther Allen, draw the same questions from the reader. Not only because of Rex's prose style — mostly sentence fragments, accreting upon each other until they form a multifaceted thought or scenario — but also because we are asked to inhabit a world unabashedly and totally perceived through references and allusions to world literature of every genre and epoch. The aesthetic (perhaps even spiritual) power of writing is at the fore, with the novel's plot and its players splashing out of Prieto's sumptuous and fantastical images, and then diving back into his refracting pool of sentences.

Prieto, a professor of Russian history in Mexico City, was born in Cuba, studied engineering in Siberia and worked in the former Soviet Union for more than a decade. He also translated Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova's poems into Spanish. The impressive intellectual agility his background presupposes is evident in Rex. Indeed, it was heralded in his first novel translated into English, Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (2000), which a New York Times review called "an impressive performance ... exciting, intellectually rich and a bit too much all at the same time."

What's fascinating about Rex is that Prieto hangs his demanding word symphony on a story ideally suited to crime noir or an international thriller. Hired to tutor the son of a Russian couple living in the south of Spain, the narrator becomes embroiled in a conspiracy by his mafia-hunted employers to manufacture perfect-seeming but synthetic diamonds. There are beautiful, perhaps even dangerous women here, topical themes (the fallout of the Soviet collapse, organized crime) and enticing settings (the beach-side playground of the elite). But that's like saying Lolita — another novel where style trumps all — offers American travelogue and a man on the run from the law. True, but hardly the point.

The book's "Author's Note," which serves Rex well, gives the novel its proper context, noting how it speaks to the trauma resulting from dictatorship and how it's the final book in a trilogy, and listing the names of most of the literary works that find their way into the novel. It's of some help in navigating Rex, but what's needed to appreciate it is a willingness to submit to Prieto's vision.

Can this be a story? Maybe, maybe not. But, oh, what a marvelous, mysterious sea it is.

Excerpt: 'Rex'

Cover: 'Rex'
Grove Press
Rex
By Jose Manuel Prieto, translated by Esther Allen
Hardcover, 321 pages
Grove
List Price: $24.00

The Writer awakens, opens his eyes in that grotto brimming with gold and jewels, and exclaims: Oh, Wonder of Wonders! Richly attired: the Malay kris at his waist, the turban at whose center the Koh-i-Noor, the Mountain of Light, glows ineffably. Toward the fantastic territory of the Book, where no one will ever be able to dethrone him, revoke his authority, cut him down to size with evidence. No principles to undermine, no evidence of his spuriousness to accumulate. No one, mounted on his shoulders, will be able to see any farther, as idiotic people (and the Commentator) claim. Farther than what? Than a bird? Farther than its feathers, farther than its beak, farther than its being as a bird? There is nothing farther, no "territory beyond"-a human construct that seeks to supplant the succinct and diaphanous idea of the Book.

The force and the shattering wonder of the passage where Marcel, on an exploration of the Arctic Circle, discovers a new and unnameable kind of water, a liquid thick as gum arabic. The commingled astonishment and intense chill this marvel arouses in his breast. And throughout this passage, the first description, the origin of a new machine, for he imagines this water, Petya, taking on density, condensing not only in the Writer's mind but also in that of the most minor and insignificant technician. The household use to which we could put it: no longer laboriously excavating swimming pools, but erecting in any garden a beautiful cube of these calm waters like the hues of a changeable silk, says the Writer, in every possible shade of purple.

A Mountain of Water! Sparkling in the sun. Can you imagine it? Imagine it!

In which we would swim, plunging in without causing the structure to collapse, for it would hold its rectangular shape, its cubic constitution. We would ascend through it, our arms open wide, like birds in a solid patch of sky.

Quite a vision, isn't it: men flying through this water that has somehow, we don't know how, been condensed? Isn't it?

And behind every house, in every garden, such a cube would rest on the surface of the earth where a swimming pool was once dug into it. Having learned to hold your breath and accelerate within the mass of water, pushing off from wall to wall, calculating and controlling your momentum so as to stick only your head outside, gulping in a mouthful of fresh air, your hair dripping, the sun sparkling on your wet head. Coming out, breaking the film of the surface before the astonished gazes, one head still below-heads up, guys!-laughing and taking a deep breath, shouting out for pure joy, then plunging back inside the cube.

A prodigy, a fabulous invention, this marvel that we would examine, attired like a couple in an engraving of the World's Fair, the bowler hat, the tiny, unnecessary parasol stuck into the lawn. Or else both of us in shorts, young ourselves, turning our backs on the cube, grown accustomed to the miracle, however strange it may seem, for it's still a miracle even in 2049, a miracle, and so is my vision of the young men rising up through the cube, slicing through it like birds soaring across the sky. The undulating block on the green lawn. Have you seen it? Shall I turn off the generator? The force field?

No, leave it on a moment longer, please-I'm still looking at it. (You should look, too.)

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