Review by Geoff Maturen — Published on March 1, 2010
Rex José Manuel Prieto (trans. Esther Allen). Grove. 288 pp, $24.00.
José Manuel Prieto’s Rex is the third installment in a trilogy (along with Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia, which is not yet available in English, and Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire) following the Cuban born protagonist and narrator “J.” After various adventures in the former Soviet Union following the fall of communism in the first two books—including a stint as smuggler and hunter of rare butterflies—J. is hired in Rex to tutor the son of a wealthy Russian family on Spain’s Costa del Sol.
J. serves for a short time in this peculiar household—made up of a husband and wife, Vasily and Nelly, their son, Petya, and a mysterious fourth figure, Batyk—and then learns that the family acquired its wealth selling fake diamonds (manufactured by Vasily himself) and that they are now in hiding after passing the fabricated jewels off to Russian mobsters, who soon realized the deception. Unsure whether to remain with the family and possibly get rich or flee to safety, J. becomes caught up in an improbable plan to solve the family’s problems by making Vasily emperor of Russia, based on the dubious claim that he descends from Russian nobility. While this could be the plot of a thriller, Prieto tells a quite different story in Rex—an insular, digressive, brilliant meditation on the relationship of art to life.
Rex’s narrative structure—consisting of twelve “commentaries” written some time after the events have occurred, and addressed to J.’s former student Petya—offers an initial clue that it is not a straightforward novel. As becomes evident, J. is not really concerned with relating what has happened. Rather, he seizes upon the events as a series of “teaching moments,” ostensibly to instruct Petya, but, one suspects, really intended as a way for J. to come to terms with the trajectory his life has taken. By telling the story in a series of more or less private communications (readers of Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire will recall that book’s running theme of epistolarity), Prieto places the reader, as it were, on the outside, left to reconstruct what has happened from J.’s fragmented, digressive, and allusive version of it. More importantly, this oblique narrative mode makes Rex less about plot than about J. himself, who turns out to be a fascinatingly unreliable narrator.
The book’s opening lines hint at J’s peculiar form of literary madness:
I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book. Over and over without stopping. Beginning again whenever I reach the final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball, returning immediately to the first words when he’s dozing off in the house in Combray and dreams of stopping time in its tracks, solidifying it.
The obsession J. reveals here with Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is not merely a private preoccupation, however. As he explains to his bewildered employers, all of the subjects in which he will tutor Petya—Spanish, mathematics, geography, physics—can be derived from “the Book.” Nor is J.’s fascination with Proust merely pedagogical. It turns out to be part of a broader aesthetic-metaphysical worldview. While Proust, as “the Writer,” seems to represent a kind of organic, primal creativity, his Manichean opposite appears in “the Commentator,” who produces perfect literary machines “devoid of human warmth.”
While J.’s devotion to “the Book” is manifestly unhinged even from the beginning (and it surely provides an initial sense of his skewed relationship to “real life”), it at least seems comprehensible as the manifestation of a young man’s devotion to one of the giants of modern literature. As the novel progresses, however, details accrue which throw the identity of “the Writer” and the meaning of “the Book” into question. Imagining Vasily standing outside a jeweler’s shop, pondering whether to go in and attempt to sell his fake diamonds, J. presents the following image, while also exhibiting his penchant for fragmentary sentences:
His silhouette reflected on the glass as in that extraordinarily sweet passage by the Writer when Odette de Crécy (the fragility of her arching brows, her lovely dark eyes) breakfasts at Tiffany’s, feasting on the sparkle of the jewels on display at Fifth and Fifty-seventh, dreaming of all that money, the bracelets and pendants she’d buy if she were rich.
J.’s conflation of Swann’s lover, Odette de Crécy, with Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) is not the first indication that “the Book” may not simply be À la recherche du temps perdu (and, by extension, “the Writer” not simply be Proust), but it is one of the most overt. Returning to Rex’s opening lines, with its reference to “the Book’s” “final description of the vast party, the inaugural ball,” the careful reader may notice that while Proust’s book indeed concludes with a party (hosted by Mme. Verdurin, who at this point in the novel has become the Princesse de Guermantes), it is not—at least in any straightforward way—an “inaugural ball.” While on one level this seems to indict J. as a poor reader of Proust (or, on another, to be a trap set by Prieto for the reader complacent in his spotty knowledge of Proust’s massive book) it is, in fact, a clue to what the “the Book” and “the Writer” really mean for J. (Without revealing more, I will say that this reference to inauguration ties into the scheme to have Vasily made emperor of Russia.)
Taking enjoyment in Rex, I would imagine, requires the willingness—or, better, the desire—to enter J.’s headspace, and to take his extreme investment in literature and artifice seriously, without needing to affirm or deny it, and without equating it with Prieto’s own position. While the contrast between “the Writer” and “the Commentator” is surely, on one level, a way of talking about artistic production which foregrounds a particular postmodern concern—that of belatedness v. originality—in context, it functions as something more than authorial self-reflection. Prieto makes this explicit in an author’s note at the end (which seems to be as playful and deceptive as it is informative) where he writes that the “primary human theme of the novel is the strategies used to overcome the terrible experience of totalitarianism. . . . Rex can be considered a post-totalitarian novel, whose characters are all profoundly disturbed.”
While this certainly provides a first means of approach into the shifting, unstable world of J.’s narration, the reader may nonetheless be left wondering how his devotion to “the Book” and participation in a scheme to have Vasily named emperor are symptoms of post-totalitarian trauma. Rex on its own can certainly be read as a “post-totalitarian novel”, but it is also useful to remember that it is the third book in a trilogy (whose first installment is not yet available in English) and therefore best understood as part of a larger arc. In Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia, J., initially a devoted socialist, describes his disillusionment after the fall of communism in this way: “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.” In Rex then, J. has, in some poignant, all-too-human sense, come full circle, now planning to play a part in the creation of another “fake emperor.”
In a way difficult to convey in a brief review, Rex is a fascinating, dense and even deceptively difficult book. Like the fake diamonds J. swoons over, its polished surface invites the reader into a dazzling interior, which bends and refracts the light. Prieto’s handling of J.’s troubled relationship to reality—mediated as it is by “the Book”—far from being a postmodern device, is a breathtakingly controlled exploration of human folly, and, more specifically, of the same kind of ambiguous, artistic “madness” that runs through Cervantes to Flaubert and Nabokov. One can only hope that an English translation of Enciclopedia de una vida en Rusia will appear soon, so that Prieto’s remarkable achievement can reach a broader audience fully intact.
 (trans. Natasha Wimmer, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090608/wimmer/2)