Puttin’ on the Glitz: José Manuel Prieto’s Rex
May 20, 2009
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.
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