Encyclopedia of a Life in Russiaby José Manuel Prieto
“A terrifyingly original writer, José Manuel Prieto’s prose shakes the walls of the literary kingdom.” —Gary Shteyngart
In Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, acclaimed author José Manuel Prieto has masterfully crafted a kaleidoscopic portrait of post-Communist Russia. Strikingly poetic and cleverly humorous, it’s the story of two misfits caught between old world traditions and the lure of contemporary Western influences as they set off on an adventure to immerse themselves in the beauty of the world.
Thelonius Monk (not his real name) and Linda Evangelista (not her real name) meet in Saint Petersburg after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. They journey to Yalta, where Thelonius promises to make Linda famous in the fashion magazines. But in fact, he’s drafting a novel about her. Over the course of their travels, the two indulge in all sorts of sensual amusements—extravagant dinners, luxury automobiles, seaside hotels—while they engage in grand discussions of love, art, celebrity, and other existential polarities.
Alphabetically organized from Abacus to Zizi, this book defies chronology and conformity. Finding the sublime in the trivial through meditations on wildly varied subjects of fact and fancy—from Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and fluoride toothpaste—Prieto ardently explores the crossroads of literature, philosophy, history, and pop culture in this singular novel that captures a nation straddling custom and innovation.
“Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia embodies the intelligence and absurdity of the Russian soul.” —David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World
“A playful and poetic look at a nation at odds with itself and its infatuation with the Western world.” —Time Out New York
“Playful and fascinating . . . a book of vivid impressions of Soviet and Russian culture . . . It’s also seemingly about the world of hyperlinks, of mashups on YouTube, of cut-and-paste, about the idea that someday everything knowable will be knowable by everyone. . . . As a reading experience, Encyclopedia mirrors our hyperlinked, mashed up, online lives.” —Chicago Tribune
“A meditation posing as a reference book disguising a five-finger plot. It is, ostensibly, about an expatriate adventure in Russia at the end of an era. But its novelty is its schizophrenic insistence on the instant and the simultaneous, forcing the reader to travel laterally across a landscape that is anything but chronological. . . . Like all good encyclopedias, [it is] redolent of the era in which it was compiled. . . . It is an encyclopedia that, wherever you begin to read, will at some point contradict its aforementioned items. Much like Russia. Much like knowledge.” —Bookslut
“[Prieto] explores the idiosyncrasies, neuroses, and loves of a people rising from the stupefying yet naively hopeful system of Communism. . . . Both a love letter to a lost world, and a vision of a world being born before his eyes, Prieto captures the precariousness of national death and rebirth.” —Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“Prieto’s formally audacious novel . . . has genuine resonance in the age of celebrity, and it bubbles with energy and mischief. Quirky and consistently surprising.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The narrative surges forward . . . Offbeat and witty.” —Kirkus Reviews
Abacus. The satisfaction of embarking upon this encyclopedia with an entry that figures on the first page of so many. We find the ABACUS throughout Russia. Fabricated of metal, wood, and bone. Displayed on many a counter as a guarantee of impartial computation, yet serving primarily as a means of swindling the buyer, who never quite manages to grasp, who follows the play of beads along wires, hypnotized. Having consulted the complex framework of the ABACUS, golden-haired oracles announce impenetrable results, weighted in their favor by at least 10 percent. (I’ve known shrewd customers to carry a pocket abacus for rapid verification.)
I often asked K** to teach me how to use one, an art she’s known from the time she was a girl, but I never managed to get past the hundreds column to the final wire.
Bibliosphere. We can imagine it as an immense spherical structure, Ptolemaically centered on every man-reader. Its thin walls—thick as a single page from the Bible—harbor all texts that have been written and all those being written at this moment (including this one), their surface ceaselessly expanding. The vastness of the BIBLIOSPHERE, its cosmic diameter, in no way slows the velocity of access to its texts, for any journey across it is mental and instantaneous. After a more or less exhaustive exploration of the BIBLIOSPHERE a writer who is less than shrewd may enter a perilous state of ecstatic dejection, having deduced that nothing new can be created. A dynamic intelligence—one we might qualify as Copernican—will understand that we must return to the scholastic practice of the gloss, acknowledging the BIBLIOSPHERE as an authority. All that remains then is to discover the generative nature of the BIBLIOSPHERE, its capacity to create texts out of itself. Bacon writes, in The Masculine Birth of Time or Three Books on the Interpretation of Nature, “A pig might print the letter A with its snout in the mud, but you would not on that account expect it to go on to compose a tragedy.” The theorem of the British Museum proposes virtually the same thing: “If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all of the books in the British Museum” (Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World). Or, to simplify things a bit, the monkeys might limit themselves to the thirty-five volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Indeed, why not suppose—again, Copernicanally—that literature is no longer the province of mankind, that the fictional corpus will henceforth emerge by spontaneous generation from the depths of the BIBLIOSPHERE: originality of style, exquisite composition, the stamp of genius all the results of a roll of the dice, or rather, an automated spin of the painstakingly labeled spheres of a combinatorial optimization machine.
Calligraphy. One day during an essentially sterile summer a woman friend had the following note delivered to me: “Don’t think for one moment that I’ll bear a grudge for what you’ve done. I’ve forgotten it already and am off to my parents’ house. I hope your anger will have passed by the time I come back. Many kisses from the one who loves you. T**”
At ten o’clock in the morning when I was still wondering whether to get up, meditating in my bed about how to waste the hours of that day, she’d already had time to do her morning jump-rope exercises, water the begonias on the balcony, put on her only summer dress—the one with red polka dots—and take a minute to write me that little note. How could a person capable of composing such a note be incapable of doing anything in the world? “Don’t think for one moment that I’ll bear a grudge for what you’ve done. I’ve forgotten it already and am off to my parents’ house. I hope your anger will have passed by the time I come back. Many kisses from the one who loves you. t**”
Her CALLIGRAPHIC writing was a further demonstration of the ease of her movement through a universe as precise as a clockwork mechanism, blindly guided by discipline. This was the source of her unvarying good humor. I could never achieve such handwriting. T** was, even so, a fine, upstanding woman who had all the grace of her flowery capitals. Her note made me happy (I’d come to love her a great deal) and saddened me at the same time.
I went down to the garden.
“Know what? I always thought CALLIGRAPHY was an antiquated practice, from the days when my father was studying it by the Edward Johnston system and all around us were beautiful PACKARDS whose looping contours are like CALLIGRAPHY compared to today’s cars, which look like printed block letters. To discover a thing like this”—and I showed my lady friend the little note from T**—“is highly disconcerting, believe me.”
Dacha. In 198* I lived for a long while in a small town, practically a VILLAGE, next to a wide river. In the afternoons, I would stroll down to its bank and, captivated by the grandeur of what was virtually an immense inland sea, would spend hours admiring the beauty of the landscape. Sometimes, for a long second, there appeared before me all the good books I would one day write: a precise vision of my future fragmented not into days but into the works that would someday appear under my name. What remained was the annoying task of writing them. (In the winter, a meter-thick layer of ice could support the weight of trucks loaded with wheat, and there, again, was I, observing the scene, amazed that they didn’t plunge straight to the bottom of the river: truck, driver, and grain.)
To live there was like dwelling in a DACHA on the outskirts of some large city on the outskirts of the world. I knew that not far from Moscow a town of DACHAS had been built for writers loyal to the IMPERIUM, where they’d spend their summers, each and every one describing the flight of the selfsame grouse, the same rosy-fingered dawns. So strong was this custom of writing in DACHAS that, even when they became fugitives from the IMPERIUM and were declared to exist outside its laws, many writers took refuge—for what occult reason I know not—in DACHAS. The fearsome Solzhenitsyn completed his blood-curdling circumnavigation of the Archipelago in a DACHA that belonged to Rostropovich, the famous cellist. The beautiful Anna Akhmatova lived out the end of her days in something like a small DACHA, the “cabin in Komarovo” which, according to her biographers, at last accorded her the peace of a home of her own. Finally, the entire Pleiades of the IMPERIUM’s bad writers (such as Yevtushenko, Mijalkov, and a very bad one indeed, Bondarev) lived in DACHAS where, as if thereby constricted or encumbered, they slipped into a comfortable prose, the flight of the selfsame grouse, the same rosy-fingered dawns.
Perhaps private DACHAS still exist—it would appear that Alexander Isaievich (Solzhenitsyn) inhabits one in a Vermont BOSCAGE—but I maintain that the DACHA-IST era had a negative impact on Russian literature. (in self-justification, certain Pushkinists—all of them owners of DACHAS—paint Pushkin’s retirement in Mikhailovskoe during the autumn of 1825, a period that can obviously be characterized as DACHA-IST, as a time of superproductivity. And therefore, if Pushkin himself . . . that is, given that we find traces of DACHA-ISM in this genius, too, et cetera.) I, too, had my DACHA-IST period, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve never written more or better. I would get up every morning . . .