A story of sheer folly
José Manuel Prieto: “Rex”, Suhrkamp, 2008, 340 pages.
After many years in Russia, a young Cuban accepts the offer to work in southern Spain as the preceptor of an eleven-year old boy. Soon, however, it becomes clear for the Cuban that he can have no contacts to the external world and has come into a mafia-home. The impression increases, when he finds a large diamond on the meadow in front of the mansion.
The word “folly” appears in José Manuel Prietos novel like a late confession nearly at the end. But by then one will have understood anyway that this is a completely foolhardy text and a foolhardy author. Because one has to come up with such a story to believe it: A young Cuban living in Russia, with a deep longing for the sea and the sun accepts the offer to work in the Southern Spanish and extremely aristocratic city of Marbella as a house teacher for an eleven-year old. The boy’s parents and thus the employers of the teacher are the beguiling Nelly and the rather coarse Wassili, an obviously extremely rich couple. They are a product of the nineties of Yeltsin’s Russia and reside now in an enormous, splendid mansion.
It is equally striking, however, that they cut themselves off and maintain no contact whatsoever to the external world , so that for the Cuban preceptor it becomes son clear that he has ended up in a mafia-home. This impression increases when he finds a large diamond on the meadow in front of the mansion and instead of his salary is presented with a similar piece. The further course of the novel reveals the background. Wassili, a talented engineer, has invented in Russia a procedure for the production of artificial diamonds, which look perfectly genuine and only with substantial expenditure are recognizable as synthetic products. He trades with them as if they were real and in his biggest coup places several stones with the Russian mafia. The mafia, however, finds out about the fraud and finally tracks down Wassili in order to kill him.
What makes the rescue plan of the young Cuban look foolish is the outer development of the plot. He intends to install Wassili on the vacant throne of the Russian czar because this is the only safeguard to prevent the mafia from murdering the diamond breeder. So much daring has naturally a strong engine/motivation. The preceptor worries less about Wassili than about his beautiful wife Nelly, with whom from the first moment on he has fallen desperately in love. With the scattered rests of the rather worn out European aristocracy residing in Marbella, the preceptor organizes a big celebration, which is to serve as the official initiation of the pretender to the throne. In truth, it rings in a phantasmagorical final round, in which the rescue plan fails completely.
The text itself, however, is from the beginning on sheer folly. It sets forth with an homage of the Cuban first person storyteller and teacher to Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. In his own narration, he promptly avails himself of its highly estheticized tone, lovingly playing about it. The devotion goes so far that he barely mentions author and title but simply speaks of “the book” and “the writer.” What is more, “the book” is the only basis he uses for the education of his eleven-year old pupil. Such a degree of effusive admiration is suspicious, and indeed, there is a clear thread of irony wrought through the text. Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Mann or Jorge Luis Borges and many other men of letters, whose echoes are notable in the text, receive a similar treatment. In this way this novel does not only stage a wild story about the Russian mafia, it interlaces it artfully with a reflection on the possibilities of writing at the aesthetic height of one’s time. One must call José Manuel Prieto without any restriction one of the literary most potent authors of the Hispanic world.
Reviewed by Gregor Ziolkowski
Traducción al inglés.