Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Review of Rex by José Manuel Prieto (translated by Esther Allen)

Rex: A Novel
4 out of 5: This novel by Cuban-born, Russian-educated José Manuel Prieto is narrated by a tutor (who asks to be called Psellus) and directed to his pupil, eleven-year-old Petya, the son of two Russian émigrés living in luxury on Spain’s Costa del Sol. Petya’s parents, Vasily and Nelly, are hiding from two Russian mafiosos they swindled out of millions in a scheme involving fake diamonds. But, in Rex, appearances are highly questionable, and the purported swindle could be merely a tool used by Vasily and Nelly to persuade Psellus to do their bidding, including transforming Vasily into the long-lost czar of Russia. Whatever the truth, plot is secondary in Prieto’s unique literary creation that is Rex.

Psellus derives his lessons to the young Petya, and indirectly to the reader, exclusively from the Book, Psellus’s name for Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
If you receive nothing more from me than some knowledge of the details of the Book, if in all your adult life you don’t manage to retain any more than a few passages, a few scattered phrases of the Book, that would be enough to give you a distinct advantage as you go out into the world. Only through the Book can you learn to judge men sensibly, plumb their depths, detect and comprehend their obscurest motives, sound the abyss of their souls.
Psellus’s other influences include the supremely worthy Writer, who is really an amalgamation of numerous writers, including Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Dostoyevsky, and the despicable Commentator, quite likely intended as a stand-in for Jorge Luis Borges, and perhaps even, at times, for Prieto himself.

Prieto’s prose defies description. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read recently (or maybe ever). It’s a highly referential banter of thoughts, images, dialog, and questions to the reader. Often lacking in subjects or verbs or other generally indispensable parts of sentences, Prieto’s sentences are obscure and difficult, but also loaded with charm and humor. Esther Allen’s flexible, lively translation is its own work of art. As demonstrated by this scene where Psellus steals a dance with the beautiful but unattainable Nelly, Allen captures the musicality and exuberance of Prieto’s language:
In which the two of us danced, Nelly’s face and mine, our faces consumed by fire, the blue tongues of my passion, the impulse that led me to inhale the aroma of her hair, bewitched by the arc of her brows, revolving at the center of a slow song that astonished me when I heard its first chords because I said to myself: jazz, but without being able to tell you [Petya], you up in your room at that moment, to interject a rapid commentary, overlooking for the moment the commentaristic (or belated? Or belated) nature of jazz. A song that now, each time I hear it, of course.
Rex is a thoroughly enjoyable literary puzzle for those who embrace originality and can accept some amount of confusion for a little over 300 pages (if the quote above brings fear to your heart, you should probably skip this one). This book begs a second reading, which I suspect would be even more pleasurable than the first.


Zibilee said...

I am not sure if I would like this book, and I'll be honest in saying the quote you provided was a more than a little perplexing to me, but I am glad that you enjoyed it so much that you will be rereading the book.

An Anonymous Child said...

I tried to read "Rex" a few months ago and thought it was fascinatingly bizarre (a little dense at times) with great writing (even if references clogged the book more than I'd have liked). I was borrowing the book and only had something like three days to read it. Not enough. I'd like to return to it someday because I did find it curiously clever. I'm not sure I'll necessarily love it (or even like it very much), but I'd definitely like another crack at reading it.

Lisa Hayden Espenschade said...

Thank you for writing about this one. The publisher sent me a copy of Rex because of my Russian interest but I haven't read it yet... though it sounds interesting and has been on my end table for months!

I'm curious: do you think I'd lose a lot because I haven't read In Search of Lost Time? I've only read about 50 pages of Proust!

Gwen Dawson said...


I think you'd be just fine reading Rex without having read much Proust. I've only ever read bits and pieces of Proust myself, but it was enough to understand much of what Prieto was going for. Rex has inspired me to tackle more of Proust, actually.

Gwen said...

As a follower of Faulkner, I used to love a book that challenged me. I've since moved away from that, maybe this is a good point to jump back in.