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Danger, Diamonds In A Dazzling Word Symphony

Born in Cuba, Jose Manuel Prieto is a professor of Russian history in Mexico City.
Born in Cuba, Jose Manuel Prieto is a professor of Russian history in Mexico City.

At the start of his confounding, glimmering and literature-besotted novel Rex, author Jose Manuel Prieto drops a big hint as to what he has in mind. His unnamed narrator, a young Spanish-speaking Russophile of incredible erudition, tells us about an editor's bewilderment upon reading Remembrance of Things Past, Proust's masterpiece, at the time it had just been completed. "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?' "

Prieto and his translator, Esther Allen, draw the same questions from the reader. Not only because of Rex's prose style — mostly sentence fragments, accreting upon each other until they form a multifaceted thought or scenario — but also because we are asked to inhabit a world unabashedly and totally perceived through references and allusions to world literature of every genre and epoch. 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.

Prieto, a professor of Russian history in Mexico City, was born in Cuba, studied engineering in Siberia and worked in the former Soviet Union for more than a decade. He also translated Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova's poems into Spanish. The impressive intellectual agility his background presupposes is evident in Rex. Indeed, it was heralded in his first novel translated into English, Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (2000), which a New York Times review called "an impressive performance ... exciting, intellectually rich and a bit too much all at the same time."

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. Hired to tutor the son of a Russian couple living in the south of Spain, the narrator becomes embroiled in a conspiracy by his mafia-hunted employers to manufacture perfect-seeming but synthetic diamonds. There are beautiful, perhaps even dangerous women here, topical themes (the fallout of the Soviet collapse, organized crime) and enticing settings (the beach-side playground of the elite). But that's like saying Lolita — another novel where style trumps all — offers American travelogue and a man on the run from the law. True, but hardly the point.

The book's "Author's Note," which serves Rex well, gives the novel its proper context, noting how it speaks to the trauma resulting from dictatorship and how it's the final book in a trilogy, and listing the names of most of the literary works that find their way into the novel. It's of some help in navigating Rex, but what's needed to appreciate it is a willingness to submit to Prieto's vision.

Can this be a story? Maybe, maybe not. But, oh, what a marvelous, mysterious sea it is.

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Oscar Villalon
Oscar Villalon is book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. A member of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, he's also a long-time juror of the California Book Awards, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club. His writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer, and his reviews have aired on KQED's The California Report. He lives with his wife and son in San Francisco.