It a more perfect world, I would have enough time to read this book at least one more time before even attempting to write this review. Rex is a novel that’s filthy with references to other novels, plays, essays, TV shows, works of art, etc. Even from the opening line—“I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book”—the reader is forced to start paying attention and deciphering the web of references that make up this novel. (Which is why it’s great that Grove decided to include an “Author’s Note” at the back of the finished edition detailing some of the allusions made in the work—more on that in a bit.)
As mentioned above, the novel opens with a somewhat obsessed opening paragraph all about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:
I’ve been reading it for year, 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 cafes. 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.
Proust’s masterpiece is more than just a book (or even “Book”) to J., the young Cuban narrator of this novel. He’s recently been hired by a somewhat mysterious Russian couple living in southern Spain to tutor their son, Petya, and to teach him Spanish. Having bluffed his way into the cushy position (which is desirable if for no other reason than to be close to the boy’s seductive mother), J.‘s plan is to use the Book as the sole teaching instrument, for what isn’t contained in this book?
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. [. . .]
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.
And if nothing else, J. does seem to draw the young boy closer. Rex is a series of twelve “commentaries,” in which J. is speaking to Petya, telling the story of what’s happened to his parents, what’s really been going on. Not that J. explains what’s really been going on in a straightforward fashion, instead this thoroughly unreliable narrator who is always going on and on about the Book and the Commentator (Jorge Luis Borges), the Writer (who is different people throughout the novel) in a way that can be both pedantic and naive all at once. Or, as Prieto explains in his “Author’s Note”:
It is not by chance, either, that Petya is the listener and sole recipient of the story; the whole tone of the book derives from that fact. Rex returns to the free fabulations of childhood, and the tales of Psellus, the tutor, are an amalgamation of all the books he read as a youth or a child, out of which he improvises for Petya a highly adorned story of his parents’ life, a story that otherwise, told in some other way, might have been sordid and terrible.
Plot-wise, things get interesting in this book when J. comes home from a night of dancing and finds a couple blue diamonds in the front lawn. He pockets and hides these for the time being, later finding out that these are a couple of the fake diamonds manufactured by the young boy’s father Vasily, who supposedly ripped off the Russian mafia with these fakes.
At first glance this might seem a bit far-fetched, but translator Esther Allen—who did a marvelous job with this novel, which must’ve presented innumerable difficulties—directed me to an article entitled The New Diamond Age that appeared in Wired magazine a half-dozen years ago and is all about a couple diamond producers who were perfecting a technique to create diamonds and preparing to chip away at De Beers’s stranglehold on the diamond market.
And if this sounds a bit familiar, it might be thanks to The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, a pastiche about Lemoine, a real Frenchman who, in the early 1900s, conned De Beers out of a lot of money by convincing them he had discovered a cheap and easy way to create diamonds from coal.
In Rex, this diamond con leads to a paranoid existence, in which Vasily and his gorgeous wife struggle to figure out a way to be safe—to escape permanently from the threat of the Russian mafia, many of whom vacation in this same Spanish town.
Due to his attraction to Nelly—which presents one of the odder aspects of this book, since J. has no issue with telling her son about how sexually appealing she is to him, how he wants to run away with her, etc., all of which adds to J.‘s peculiar voice and instability—J. gets involved in a grand scheme to pull one big scam and link Vasily to the Russian czars.
Returning to the original point, this wild plot is embedded within a heap of literary references and touchpoints, at times obfuscating what’s going on, but also elevating this work into a sort of game, which, to be honest, left me feeling like I had missed something, a special clue that would eliminate some of the uncertainties in J.‘s story (is he crazy? dangerous? a pawn?), that would make this all make sense.
Not that this is a criticism—far from it. 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.
What’s also interesting is that this novel is the last volume in a trilogy that includes Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia (not translated into English) and Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (published by Grove in 2000). In his author’s note Prieto sets forth a bit of what he’s up to with these books:
With all three novels, I’ve tried to go beyond the realism commonly associated with the autobiographical novel (which all three are), yet not toward magic or magical realism, but rather toward science and a kind of magico-scientific realism, if such a thing is possible.
Prieto is successful in this regard, and hopefully his first book will make it into English in the near future—this trilogy looks like a great start to a long career.