World Books Review: An Adventure Through Literary Time

An assured novel that celebrates, with considerable stylistic facility, an extraordinary engagement with the history of literature.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto
Translated from Spanish by Esther Allen. Grove Press, 288 pages

Reviewed by Alexander Nemser


Jose Manuel Prieto’s “Rex” is 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. As the novel points out repeatedly, and even suspiciously, this is, at the same time, an adventure through timelessness, through the alluring eternal present of Literature as it exists alongside our time-bound passage through life.

Literature’s living presence is felt from the start to completely color, even to derange, the perceptions of the novel’s narrator, J., a defiantly bookish young man hired as a tutor for the son of a Russian family living in southern Spain. The family is apparently in possession of otherworldly wealth, and J. arrives with his imagination raised to a frantic height of daydreaming by his obsessive reading of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.”

The protagonist is almost immediately disappointed by the lack of taste, with the “whisper of surf barraging the coast” emerging from silver column-shaped speakers, and everything shining with a “doubloon glint.” J.’s ward, Petya, the addressee of the narrative, turns out to be a child with a mind distorted to idiocy by television like “a vinyl disc scratched by an oversize needle”; his every movements are followed by Batyk, the family’s mysterious “Filipino butler” who in fact displays all the qualities of a native of the Russian province of Buryatia; and he is completely unable to identify how Vasily Guennadovich, the father of the house, acquired his money, as much as he makes inquiries of Nelly, his dazzling wife who appears wearing necklaces surreally tinted diamonds, but never leaves the house.

As J. begins his lessons with Petya, based exclusively around commentaries on Proust’s novel, referred to by the Borgesian phrase “the Book” (“Everything is there in the Book, everything!”), the tutor finds himself embroiled in an elaborate conspiracy of sordid motives and ambiguous threats.

What follows is a fantastic plot involving a scheme to sell synthetic diamonds to a pair of cold-blooded Russian gangsters, the development of an anti-gravity machine, a platinum blonde who glows “like a creature from another world, from Epsilon Indi of the constellation of Tucana,” and another, even wilder scheme to orchestrate the resurrection and imposture of the Imperial House of Russia, with Vasily masquerading as the lost king, one of the multiple implications of the book’s title. But as the story develops, “Rex” is hijacked, for the better, by the Prieto’s considerable stylistic facility, and, further, by his ambitious and generous project of engagement with the history of literature.

Like Vladimir Nabokov, whose presence is never far from the author’s work (one of Prieto’s earlier novels, “Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire,” is a kind of book-length tribute to the Russian novelist), Prieto possesses a talent for description through surprising and extended flights of imagery, as when J. relates how he watched the beguiling Nelly go swimming wearing a necklace of incredible red and blue jewels: “I would follow her progress with the attention of a sentry watching a submarine’s red and blue navigation lights in the dark waters of an estuary.”

And when the two go on a romantic walk along the coast, he imagines the two of them like “a pair of assistant directors scouting along the edge of a steep cliff for the right location to film a scene of love and complicity against the wide-open sky.” 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. The book constantly questions its own structure, doubts itself, and curls back around on its own premises: reviewing his own subject matter, J. asks, “Isn’t that enough for an original book, a straightforward book, written out point by point, without flashbacks or commentaries, should anyone, a primary writer, be disposed to do so?”

The text is punctuated throughout with fragments from Literature’s endless present, which appear in boldface, frequently without gloss, held up by J. as concentrations of wisdom, indictments of banality, even exact formulations of the phenomena he is recounting. In one funny moment, J., to prove the all-encompassing nature of Proust’s novel, demonstrates that even “The Matrix” was predicted by “the Book”: a description of “Saint-Loup’s two fists” wheeling in an “unstable constellation” of fists is shown to anticipate the scene in which a robotic agent catches up with Neo in a metro station and “launches a series of quick blows, a wheel of fists…like the blades of a windmill.”

Later in the novel, however, J. begins making much wider references to “the Book,” which turns out to contain not just Proust, but all of literature. And J.’s quotations from dozens of writers, from Herodotus to Shakespeare to Isaac Asimov, ultimately compose the very fabric of the novel. In this way, “Rex” ends up reading like a fanciful projection of what is to be found in between the lines of Literature itself, a reflection on the way in which literature and reality ceaselessly comment on each other, and an expression of mortal gratitude for the alternative Literature offers in the face of what is still unrealized.

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