25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Over the next three weeks, we’ll be highlighting a book a day from the Best Translated Book Award fiction longlist. Click here for all past write-ups.



Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto. Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen. (Cuba, Grove Press)

I’m about to give away the game in relation to this novel . . . So if you’re an anti-spoiler sort of person, I recommend skipping this post and simply buying the book and enjoying all the literary games packed within.

Trying to summarize this book is a bit tricky. It’s like a mafia thriller filtered through Nabokov. It’s a dense book with a narrator who is both unreliable and maybe a bit confused, and who is obsessed with Proust. It was also the subject of an incredible conversation Erica Mena and I had with Esther Allen for a forthcoming Reading the World podcast. (That’s a subtle enough plug, right?)

Anyway, the basic set-up of this book is that the narrator has been hired by a Russian couple living in Marabella, Spain to tutor their son. The narrator decides that all the kid needs to do is read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which is the book that contains everything from psychology to quantum physics. The world is in there.

It startled, even frightening 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.

Rex is constructed out of a series of “Commentaries” from the narrator to the young boy. Most of these sections focus on telling the story of the boy’s parents and of the narrator’s attempt to figure out what the hell is really going on. (More on that in a second.) Littered throughout these commentaries are references to other books—sometimes Proust, sometimes others. Sometimes these phrases are bolded, sometimes they’re not. In translating the book, Esther Allen created a list of references that she worked from, and Jose Manuel Prieto did the same, resulting in an invaluable “author’s note” at the end that provides an amazing set of references.

It’s through this intricate set of references that the reader has to figure out what’s “going on” with the family that has employed our narrator. Initially he thinks they’re one of the wealthiest families he’s ever met. Although how they got their money is a bit suspicious and unnerving . . . Because they are Russian and living in a mob-heavy community—and because of the enormous diamonds that are just around—he’s initially convinced that he’s working for a couple major players in the mafia . . . But that’s not actually right. It’s actually a bit more complicated and involves fake diamonds (like in Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, which may be more of an ur-text for the novel than In Search of Lost Time), a dangerous scam, and some members of the mob that have recently been released from prison . . .

Rex is one of those novels that benefits from multiple readings. And it really doesn’t matter if you know the “plot” or not. The joy is in all the literary games . . .

17 July 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Jose Manuel Prieto’s Rex is one of my favorite books so far from 2009, and Esther Allen is one of my favorite translation people. Which is why I’m thrilled that CAT just made available this series of audio clips from a discussion between Prieto and Allen from earlier this year.

20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our latest review is of Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen and published this month by Grove. This is the second book of Prieto’s that Grove has published—Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire came out a few years ago—and hopefully isn’t the last.

As you can probably tell from my review, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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.”

Click here for the full review.

Rex
20 April 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

31 March 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

For whatever reason, April is a huge month for literature in translation. According to the translation database there are 39 works of fiction and poetry coming out in translation this month. We will be running full-length reviews of a number of these titles, but over the course of the month, I thought I’d highlight the April titles that catch my eye.

Also, more on this later, but since Shaman Drum is our featured indie bookstore for April, all of the “buy” links below go to their online catalog.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen (Grove, $24.00, buy)

This is one of the best 2009 books I’ve read so far this year. A very Nabokovian book, the novel is made up of a series of “commentaries” by a young Cuban tutor about his pupil’s mysterious family (possibly on the run from the Russian mafia) and about In Search of Lost Time, which J. refers to as The Book, claiming that it contains everything you need to know. (Proust hovers over this novel, especially in relation to the story of the fake diamonds . . .)


News from the Empire by Fernando del Paso, translated from the Spanish by Alfonso Gonzalez and Stella T. Clark (Dalkey Archive, $18.95, buy)

Del Paso’s Palinuro of Mexico is one of my favorite Dalkey books, so I was very excited to find out that they were bringing out another of his books. Epically long (704 dense pages), News from the Empire centers on Maximilian and his wife Carlota, the Emperor and Empress of Mexico from 1863 to 1867. This book was nicely reviewed in Publishers Weekly, where it was referred to as “a Mexican War and Peace.


The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago, $25, buy)

Last year Archipelago had more titles on the Best Translated Book Fiction Longlist than any other press—a testament to Jill Schoolman’s taste. I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s list was much the same. The Twin is one of the first big titles Archipelago is bringing out this year, the story of Helmer, a young man who has to return home to take over the family farm after his twin brother dies in a car accident. The story sounds fine, but it’s the laconic writing style that the critics have been praising. Susan Salter Reynolds called Bakker’s writing “fabulously clear, so clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake,” and Michael Orthofer ended his review with this: “Yet in Bakker’s telling — those simple descriptions and the terse dialogue, with all its lack of true communication — it is an absolutely fascinating read. Well worthwhile.”


A Thousand Deaths Plus One by Sergio Ramirez, translated from the Spanish by Leland Chambers (McPherson & Co., $25.00, not avail. via Shaman Drum)

I haven’t received a review copy yet, but this novel (which also received an “A-” from the Complete Review) sounds pretty intriguing. It’s a novel about Juan Castellon, a Nicaraguan photographer the author discovers during a visit to Warsaw. The novel is told alternating chapters of Ramierz’s quest to reveal the artist’s identity and Castellon’s own side of the story, and according to Michael Orthofer, “It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing.”

17 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [2]

While I was at the AWP conference, a ton of interesting books arrived in our offices, all worth writing about. I’ll try and cover more of these over the next few weeks, but for now, I thought I’d look at the three titles translated from Spanish that caught my eye.

Rex by Jose Manuel Prieto is one of the spring books that I’m most excited about. Prieto’s first book — Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire — earned him comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, and it sounds like Rex is working in that same vein, as a “sexy and zany literary game rife with allusions to Proust, Homer, Pushkin, and even Star Wars, set in a world of wealthy Russian expats and Mafiosos who have settled in Western Europe.” I talked to Esther Allen at some point when she was working on this translation, and I remember her recommending it highly. Even from the first paragraph it’s evident Prieto has a special command:

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 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. 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.

It’s thanks to Monica Carter that I recently found out about Scarletta Press. (That and the fact that the director came to the panel I was on at AWP.) A relatively young press, Scarletta is doing a couple of translations this season, including Ignacio Solares‘s Yankee Invasion, a historical novel about life in Mexico under U.S. rule. The novel is written as a memoir-in-process by an old Mexican man haunted by his experiences during the “Yankee Invasion.” Carlos Fuentes wrote an introduction for this novel, and Solares is one of Mexico’s most respected — and prolific — contemporary writers, so this should be worth checking out.

And speaking of contemporary Mexican writers, I also received a finished copy of the Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction anthology that Dalkey Archive is putting out thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts cultural exchange project. Edited by Alvaro Uribe (with the translations edited by Olivia Sears), this volume collects stories from sixteen Mexican writers born after 1945, including Cristina Rivera-Garza, Rosa Beltran, Juan Villoro, Daniel Sada, Guillermo Samperio, and Hector Manjarrez. I’ve heard elsewhere that a lot of these stories are Bonsai-esque, and I’ve been waiting to read a number of these authors for years, so I have big hopes for this book. The only thing that sucks (aside from the fact that Open Letter couldn’t apply for this project) is the interior design: I’m all for bilingual poetry collections, but printing prose on bilingual facing pages—especially when the text on the two pages in no way matches up—is sort of bizarre and hard to read. Probably would’ve been cooler to have the English in the front and Spanish in the back, and vice-versa for the Mexican edition.

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