Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia (buy it here) by Cuba’s José Manuel Prieto is easily one of the most challenging and beautiful books I’ve read in years. That it is also one of the most pleasurable is not a surprise. Set in 1991, months before the fall of the Soviet Union, which Prieto’s narrator, who is sometimes called Thelonious Monk, refers to as the imperium, this encyclopedia chronicles the days spent between a writer and a young, lovely, red-haired, Russian girl in St. Petersburg and in Yalta, on their way to Nice. But what makes this book so fascinating is not its inventive form (it is indeed written as several entries in an encyclopedia, about which the narrator writes, “[this story] will exist in suspension among the vectorial convergence of these entries or voces (voices) as they’re known in my language”), nor can its pleasure be pinned to its plot, which for the most part slips through cracks of these voces. The most exquisite pleasure to be found in this books is contained in its most indefinite quality, which for some readers might put them off it, since it is to be found mostly in its style.
But, then again, where else should a reader look for treasures in a book full of sentences like these:
The idea of the past, the history of the universe, would be incomplete without this slight adjustment. The sensation of well-being—between sheets whose colorful patterns are designed to accord with the feeling of a today that already, by tomorrow, will be an embarrassing yesterday when it sees itself reflected with appalling fidelity in the photos of yesteryear and the collections of “oldies but goodies” advertised on the radio—is the principal motor of existence. Trivial, yes: but then life is, too.
The imperium, which had projected its considerable plantigrade weight into the distance of a perfect future, collapsed under the pressure of pure-bred dogs, the once impossible dream of Jaguar convertibles and soft Persian carpets, undermined by the new goal of a pleasant way of life that, over time, had managed to replace all its celestial objectives. It had been at least fives years since anyone wore one of those awful striped neckties. That is: a profound antagonism had become apparent between the quietism of the Doctrine and the dizzying scandal of disposable diapers: between the search for a future kingdom of truth on this earth and the “general line” of the century which was to consume the present and consider the future no more than a mental construct. The peoples held captive in the imperium peered out into the dark night, afloat on a warm sea awash in delightful detritus, to watch the illuminated ship that was the permanent carnival of the occident coming toward them, and they heaved a collective, pensive sigh. “Yes, it’s in a state of decay, no doubt, but how good it smells!
To believe that the imperium fell for purely economic reasons is to commit the sin of pedestrian materialism and ignore the teachings of Weber.
In Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, José Manuel Prieto weaves the history of the fall of communism with a prolonged and theoretic discussion of the increasing frivolity of taste. First published in Spanish in 2003 and translated now into English for the first time by Prieto’s longtime translator, Esther Allen, this exquisite work better illuminates the clash of civilizations that for decades has been known as the Cold War than any other political, historical, economic, or realist work has. For the first time in reading a work of fiction that deals directly with the themes of East and West, of Communism and Capitalism, it seems to me that the writer, while writing his book, made the assumption that the civilizations in question and the personalities involved in the dispute are more profoundly linked together as human beings than they are separated by their political interests or their ideological visions of the world.
The Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia’s narrator has amassed an enviable knowledge of Russian literature and history, as well as that of the world, which he keeps in scanned files on his computer, which he calls the Bibliosphere, and in entries on Dostoevsky, Raskalnikov, and the Dacha, which is a kind of country hut where many writers lived and wrote, he shares his knowledge with the reader all while forwarding his argument about the end point of human progress. In one of my favorite entries, called “The London Dandy,” the narrator writes his interpretation of Peter the Great: ”Technically Peter I was the first zapadnik or arbitrum elegantiarum of Eurasia. Not content with shaving the boyars’ beards and dressing them in European fashion, he was led by a pure and metaphysical dandyism to build a city for himself in much the same way one orders a bespoke suit.”
In the narrator’s mind the world’s history points to an inevitable end in which all of life is as transient, as consumable and replaceable, as a pop song. He sees his role in this development as an usher leading Russia in its direction. This is an antithetical proposition to the rigid, state-controlled development sanctioned by the imperium, and he knows it. Nevertheless this is what he thinks that he must do. “Finally, [Thelonious] decided upon an essay in the primitive sense of the word: an alchemical experiment. To mix all his dandified knowledge within the vessel of a young soul, to bequeath his vision on an innocent girl.”
Thelonious understands that his success in this experiment also reflects his success of being able to lead a different kind of life. His certainty about this historical tendency toward frivolity is as much a reaction against the communistic thinking with which he has lived for most of his life as it is a reversal of that old, material dialectic. Thelonious’s experiment grapples with the hard transition that so many must have faced when their countries transformed into a free-market systems. Having believed in one historical inevitability and then seeing the world created around it collapse to be replaced by its destructive opposite, these men and women, trying to find their way in foreign world, must have felt like they were groping in the dark. Their thinking must have produced some striking absurdities, like that contained in the first two sentences of the entry on “Packard” (the car):
I suspect that we are, to our Creator, as complex and mysteriously distant as machines, and that he swells with pride when he observes our perfection. In much the same way, we are unaware of the laws that govern the aesthetic evolution of the automobile; how it ceased to be the imperfect replica of a horse-drawn carriage and instead blossomed into the dazzling curves of the post-war Packard.
There is something laughable about Thelonious’s understanding of his efforts with the young Russian girl as an experiment, about his deduction of the historical tendency towards frivolity, or about his likeness of humanity’s perfection to a post-war car. These few examples all fit the definition of pseudo-science, and the book is brimming with more, reflecting a tendency of thought that has survived for too long in communist and capitalist countries alike: the tendency to elevate science to an undeserved position as the arbiter of all truth and then to try to conform the rest of life to meet its standards. Thelonious understands this by the time his encyclopedia reaches the letter S. In his entry on “Samopal” he writes of Russia that “it was a papier maché Utopia populated by unicorns manufactured in porous resin, light and graceful, but useless.” So too the likenesses of truth.
But Prieto makes space for beauty. Even within this strange work that seems to twist our normal categories of understanding, not on their head, but in every other way than in that which can be called clear and definite, Prieto allows us to contemplate pleasure. In his entry on “Opium” he writes this sublime passage about perfume:
I had travelled to this city in search of fragrances that would be devoid of all reference, for perfumes are innately free of such things; it is we who, by christening them, endow them with a story, though we violate their essential vagueness when we attach names to them. In fact, we have no particular names for smells. We say “it smells like” and name the smell by analogy. Scents thus introduce a terrifying glissando into our representation of the world: they are as invisible as sound, without the limit of duration or spatial boundary. By giving names to perfumes, to fragrances, we seek to diminish this impression, to segment the continuum of smell into precise ideas that possess relevance and modernity. Now domesticated, these scents can establish a membrane between nature (this grey city, the dirty time of year) and ourselves: the cushion of air on which we glide, inaudible.
Just as in a fin-de-siècle novel or poem, the Huysmans of A Rebours or Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, in Prieto Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia sublime beauty stands above the natural imperative to work and strive, to mature and reproduce, and finally to die. And this is a truth that stands above a social order, for all socioeconomic systems fail to grapple adequately with this natural truth. Whether communist or capitalist, Cuban or American, or any other distinction that tries to divide and classify the world and to leave behind a coherent picture of what we know, the only human problem that truly matters is this one, and Prieto’s, Huysmans’s, and Baudelaire’s is still one of its most elegant solutions. It is fatalistic but true, and in the end it’s honest: live, feel, and try not to think, because the world, in the end, will escape our understanding.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is available now from Grove/Atlantic Press.