José Manuel Prieto’s Rex (trans. Esther Allen) is my most recent read from the Best Translated Book Award 2010 longlist, and it is the best yet. (You can see my thoughts on Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop here; I read Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring before I began this blog, but I do highly recommend it, and not just for what might be the best book cover of all time.) To paraphrase Chad Post over at Three Percent, it may be an injustice to try to review this novel without reading it at least twice, but I’m going to try.
Rex opens with an act of devotion on the part of the narrator, a somewhat crazed admirer of Proust: “I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book.” The Book, In Search of Lost Time, is never mentioned directly, nor is Proust, who is referred to only as the Writer. And the best way of describing the tone of the whole novel is to say that it emerges out of religious fervor and ecstatic mysticism. The Writer increasingly comprises other authors, as if a deity were behind them, something like Emerson’s Over-soul except that only geniuses have it, not everyone. The narrator’s obsession with this figure can only be expressed indirectly; in fact he is so dazzled by his literary obsession and his opulent surroundings (see below) that he can rarely narrate anything in a straightforward manner.
The general situation of the book goes something like this: the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple to tutor their son, Petya, at their extravagant home on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. The place drips diamonds, and the narrator suspects the family of being on the run from the Russian mob. Indeed they are: the father, Vasily, a scientist, has developed a method for creating fake diamonds that look authentic using normal testing, and he has sold loads of them to a couple of gangsters. As the novel proceeds, the narrator gets sucked into participation in the household scheming over how best to evade retribution.
The complications of the novel include thick allusions, though many specific references are not necessary for comprehension and Prieto provides an Author’s Note specifying many of his sources. (I was happy to have read the second volume of Proust recently, as there are several references to it.) More challenging is the sentence-level style, which, as I wrote above, gains a stilted quality from the narrator’s mystified devotion to writing and to wealth. Here is a sample paragraph from early in the book, involving the narrator’s first glimpse of a (fake, unbeknownst to him) diamond necklace worn by Petya’s mother, Nelly:
Without my being able to take a step or rather drop to the ground, return to earth, my feet a handsbreadth above the carpet, then falling slowly back down onto it, still plunged in my astonishment. All right: I’d noticed, I knew they were fabulously rich, but…that necklace! Diamonds, without a shadow of a doubt. Because if once in your life you’ve paid attention, if ever you’ve seen a diamond, you won’t mistake one for anything else, Petya. Just as it’s enough for me to read a single page by the Writer, a single paragraph: how it glows, how it scintillates! And I’m not the type to say—as I know some people would, affording themselves the pleasure of stupidly proclaiming: So what? Diamonds? What do I want diamonds for? Why would I pay for a diamond if it’s all the same—you know?—as a piece of cut crystal. I, a reader of the Book, was better prepared.
The most characteristic sentence-level mark here lies in the fragments, or collection of fragments, in the first sentence. In many parts the narrator can only write in a string of fragments that read as the equivalent of watching slow-motion proceed through a series of barely-related frames of film. This form marks either his own mystification, his attempt to mystify his implied reader (who is Petya, at least most of the time), or both. It calls into question his sanity and suggests his own duplicities: a narrator unreliable in multiple, overlapping ways that continuously complicate one-another. His sense that the Book has universal applicability and moral authority, speaking to all situations across time, is only the least of his strangenesses, and some of the humor as the book goes on comes from watching him strain to make his fiction a workable one. In the passage above, the actual falseness of the diamonds already bounces back to undermine the narrator’s authority on all things authentic, and thus, ultimately, his ideas about authentic art.
The resulting sense that he and the people around him are often their own dupes seems to me very much at the heart of what Rex contemplates. In his Author’s Note, Prieto writes something that seems, at first, surprising: that the novel is first and foremost a “post-totalitarian” novel, which is to say it is about life after the end of a totalitarian regime (here communist Russia). What I think he refers to is the crazed scramble for security in the moments after collapse, everyone conning everyone else in a bid to gain some stability in whatever new order arises, and everyone ready to believe in myths of a better life to come, a sudden transformation into utopia. Reading this novel, you should be prepared to disbelieve many of the things various characters profess to believe and even to wonder how anyone could believe them, but these delusions are, I think, the point. Anyone who puts Rex down early due to what appears to be unrealistic characterization will miss a truly outstanding reading experience. Chad Post’s review mentions Nabokov; expanding on this, I would say the result of Prieto’s imagined world is a book that reads as if Proust and Nabokov collaborated on the novelization of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It is a book with tragedy and humor, but with both buried under a style that ducks and weaves, creating surreal effects out of the narrator’s at once duplicitous and naïve, utopian and fearful, perspective on the world.