A Novelby Jose Manuel Prieto
“Grand literary trompe l’oeil . . . the most glittering example of literary play to have emerged in recent memory . . . Rex is radiant with energy.” —Art Winslow, Los Angeles Times
José Manuel Prieto’s Rex is a sexy, zany, and sophisticated literary game rife with allusions to Proust and Borges, set in a world of wealthy Russian expats and mafiosos who have settled in western Europe.
J. is a young Cuban man who, thanks to his knowledge of Russian and Spanish, has become the tutor of the young son of a wealthy Russian couple living in Marbella, in the part of southern Spain that the Russian mafia has turned into its winter quarters. As J. attempts to give the boy a general grade-school education by exclusively reading him Proust, he also becomes the personal secretary of the boy’s father, Vasily, an ex-scientist that J. suspects is on the run from gangsters. Vasily’s wife, Nelly, a seductive woman always draped in mind-boggling quantities of precious stones, believes the only way to evade the gangsters is an extravagant plan linking Vasily to the throne of the czars.
Rex is an unforgettable achievement: an illusory, allusive gem of a novel that confirms José Manuel Prieto as one of the most talented writers of his generation.
“A playful, grand literary trompe l’oeil . . . a novel-length con job that draws from philosophy, rhetoric, physics, magic realism and other sources. . . . Rex is the most glittering example of literary play to have emerged in recent memory, and in its narrator’s ventilations and self-contradictions, it is extremely funny. If it were a wine (and it froths over Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’), its bouquet would bear hints of Mikhail Bulgakov and José Saramago. Part political farce, part romantic parody, part crime thriller and part attempt at a unified theory of gravity and literary magnetism (an investigation into the strong and weak forces of literature and life), Rex is radiant with energy.” —Art Winslow, Los Angeles Times
“[A] confounding, glimmering and literature-besotted novel . . . The aesthetic (perhaps even spiritual) power of writing is at the fore, with the novel’s plot and its players splashing out of Prieto’s sumptuous and fantastical images, and then diving back into his refracting pool of sentences. . . . The impressive intellectual agility [Prieto’s] background presupposes is evident in Rex. . . . What’s fascinating about Rex is that Prieto hangs his demanding word symphony on a story ideally suited to crime noir or an international thriller. . . . Oh, what a marvelous, mysterious sea it is.” —Oscar Villalon, NPR
“A terrifyingly original writer, José Manuel Prieto’s prose shakes the walls of the literary kingdom. Rex affirms the genius of his first volume in a way that will make even the most jaded of readers take note.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
“Prieto’s novels in translation [are] far from easy books to translate, but their language is eminently renderable. Prieto’s arcanities are personal, not local or national, and the puzzle-like quality of his storytelling and prose makes him a rewarding challenge for the translator. Esther Allen not only masters Prieto’s circling, subject-and-verb-swallowing sentences but also comes up with inspired minutiae like ‘toothlet locking into toothlet’ and ‘blued armor.’ She understands his fetish for detail, evident in all the meticulously translated instants of extreme close-up (a cellphone call: ‘little blue screen to pink earlobe’) and the descriptions of massively magnified eyes, as if viewed through a jeweler’s loupe. . . . Prieto’s vision of Vasily as king swallows up the second half of the book and seems truly rapturous.” —Natasha Wimmer, The Nation
“An adventure through time: not historical time, or physical time, so much as literary time, the dreamy, static continuum of impressions and formulations recorded across centuries and civilizations. . . . Like Vladimir Nabokov, whose presence is never far from the author’s work . . . Prieto possesses a talent for description through surprising and extended flights of imagery. . . . Prieto’s images give the novel an alternately lyrical, hallucinatory, and ironic quality, both enriching and deflating J.’s account of the outrageous, at times to the point of being pulp, sequence of events. But Prieto’s main accomplishment is to have created a structure which so subtly and humorously enters into dialog with ideas of literary history: the way a new work is inextricably molded by its predecessors; the relentless drive of a work to outlast time and fortune; the fraudulence of commentary when faced with artistic greatness.” —Alexander Nemser, The Arts Fuse
“Rex is one of the more stunning achievements from a contemporary author that I’ve read in the past couple years. The novel revels in its literary web of references, in a way that brings to mind the work of Vladimir Nabokov. Prieto isn’t quite as smooth or cocksure as Nabokov was (at least not yet—Prieto has a lot of books ahead of him), but he is working within that same vein, which is rather unusual in today’s commercially obsessed world.” —Chad Post, Three Percent
“More than a gangster thriller . . . this work comments on the nature of narrative art and of writing. . . . Cuban-born Prieto, who dealt with a similar theme in National Butterflies of the Russian Empire, has written a desultory, occasionally obscure text that will appeal to discerning readers, especially those familiar with Proust.” —Lawrence Olszewski, Library Journal
“To read Prieto is to get carried away, to be affected by a true reading experience . . . A suggestive reflection about time, beauty and human ambition.” —El Cultural (Spain)
“Immediately riveting, for the story being told becomes a means to comment—infinitely wittily—on the possibility of writing a novel after Proust, and also Borges, Nabokov, Dostoyevsky, even Mozart. . . . There is in Prieto a buoyancy of writing that goes well beyond the solitary pleasures of intertextuality. Rex is an intellectual game. . . . Bu it is one anyone can enjoy.” —Les Inrockuptibles (France)
“An exuberant and imaginative text, full of traps and homages, a game of mirrors in which Proust and Nabokov are invited ceremoniously to dance with Borges and Wells. Or vice versa.” —El Correo Espanol (Spain)
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. I’ve opened it at random in ship terminals (Helsinki), English pubs, Istanbul caf’s. Each and every time, without fail, I’ve been stunned by the intelligence, the penetration, the unique capacity to perceive things that escape every other writer. Always the right words, flowing out miraculously, as if he never had to stop and think about them, as easily and naturally as someone randomly humming syllables, nonsense noises, tra-la-la-ing a tune.
Language, an aqueous thing, foundationless, a river of words. Yet how rapidly I sail along it, the mass of that river flowing beneath me: no mere suspension of sediment washed along by chance but the immense briny depths of a living liquid.
And we can peer down and scrutinize its surface, see it at work, discover its life, watch its cells move and exchange information and energy without ever ceasing to transmit an idea. A profligacy of means, an expenditure far beyond most other writers. Not simply piecing together a more or less coherent story—making the sun come up, in the novel, over that red sea—but reducing the incredible life of that prose or song that lies beneath our own to its essence, as if the Writer had used blood where others only water, simple sea water. And the same astonishment when, turning your gaze from the adulterous woman, the fraudulent scientists, the aristocrats of dubious lineage, you discover that all of it moves and glides upon the very finest material, the bodily fluid, the lymph of an immense animal, the earth itself a gigantic living being that easily, shockingly, secretes blood. In a single, sudden, galactic rhythm.
To such a degree that when the manuscript reached the publishing houses—pages of this new substance placed beneath the microscope for the first time—its editor, M. Van Leeuwenhoek, could see nothing but platelets, red blood cells, and pushed it away in disgust, deeming it no more than a polluted liquid, devoid of human beings, storyline, any resemblance to the patterns of life. He quested across that vast sea—which in itself was an unprecedented extravagance, a technique from somewhere beyond the skies—in search of the skiffs and galleons of its characters and found very few of them, and those few as if becalmed. And he thought, “Can this be a story? Is it a book, even?” And it was the final book!
It startled, even frightened him when I spoke that way about the Book, this being without fixed age—at first I’d thought that was me, that the Writer might be referring to me, but on an instant’s further reflection I realized the phrase applied rather to the man who had greeted me, Batyk. A man bearing a perfect resemblance to a peon, someone fetched from the depths of the darkest, sootiest oil painting.
I am concerned, he announced, with the infinite cunning and unction of Norpois (in the Writer); I am concerned, I fear that your manner of teaching, an education such as the one you propose, based on a single book, may not be the correct or appropriate one. So distorted an education, its vortex resting upon a single book, cannot, by all rights, amount to much. Didn’t you list the classes you were to give him on my behalf? Spanish, mathematics, geography in Spanish? Hadn’t you also mentioned physics? Didn’t you assure me you were well grounded in physics, extremely (sarcastic here) well grounded in physics, didn’t you agree to cover the entire sixth-grade curriculum and the seventh, as well?
And yet all I did in the first class was talk about the Book, and in the second I talked only about the Book, and in the third read aloud selected passages from the Book. That drew him closer.
To deny, like the Commentator, the greatness, the usefulness of the Book. To begin, like the Commentator, from his own terrible incapacity—the Commentator’s—to speak in a frank and direct way about something that truly interests him. Abandoned, instead, to his zeal for denying all good books, ignoring the many that have been written, his particular vice of paying attention only and almost exclusively to minor authors, names in an index. The unwarranted fixation with which he studied them, reducing them to their elements, vivisecting them. Not vivisecting but morisecting them, for they lay there lifeless before my eyes. The satisfaction of a gambler who watches a machine, a miracle of engineering, busily revolving. The little wheels of his citations spinning in their niches, toothlet locking into toothlet, but a machine—you know?—devoid of human warmth. Perfect—but a machine.
Who hasn’t felt that to be so? I invite any reader to write and try to refute me with the story of how he or she closed one of those commentaries in a state of agitation, moved by one of the dry commentaries that the Commentator sought to pass off as literature. Any reader on earth, ever.
And such a man, such a horror, in your house. His surprise when I spoke to him of the Book and he asked me for it, wanting to take a look. He held it up before me, rocking on his heels, moved it away from his eyes, as if farsighted, pretended to read it. He wondered, in a very loud voice replete with falsity, “And why doesn’t it mean anything to me? Why doesn’t this book speak to me and tell me what you say it says?” (The character who appears on stage in the second act wearing Moorish slippers; the instant we see him, his socks drooping, the djellaba thrown over his shoulders, we know he’ll behave badly, perfidiously.)
As indeed he did, opening wide his arms, as wide as arms are opened in Syria or Istanbul (not in Angarsk, in Buryatia, where he came from), and pretending that the Book had slipped from his grasp. His whole malevolent being in that gesture. Falsely conciliatory at first, but then he threw the Book down on the corner of the table. From which, under the momentum of its own weight, it slipped and fell on its spine.