'Rex' by Jose Manuel Prieto


A Novel

José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

Grove: 322 pp., $24

Is José Manuel Prieto swanning after Marcel Proust in his novel "Rex"? After all, his narrator's account of temps perdu is saturated with homage to The Writer, whose Book he used as the basic curriculum to tutor a young man whose parents may have been Russian mobsters, hiding out in a mansion on Spain's Costa del Sol.

Or is Prieto using Proust and his famous mnemonic device (a bite not of a madeleine, "as in the common misconception," but of "the crusts of time itself") as a pretext to launch an extended attack on Jorge Luis Borges? In these pages, Borges, the epitome of the so-called Commentator (as opposed to a "primary" writer), is a literary desiccant of sorts, draining literature of its juice through a dry, disdainful approach that privileges the obscure and the derivative.

Or, in otherwise unremarkable droplets of Prieto's language -- "as you like it," "body electric," "the catastrophe of an overcoat" -- is the author coding in lexical memes of Shakespeare, Whitman, Gogol, Kafka, Dostoevski, Nabokov and others to create a playful, grand literary trompe l'oeil?

Is "Rex" a novel-length con job that draws from philosophy, rhetoric, physics, magic realism and other sources?

Yes to all. "Rex" is the most glittering example of literary play to have emerged in recent memory, and in its narrator's ventilations and self-contradictions, it is extremely funny. If it were a wine (and it froths over Homer's "wine-dark sea"), its bouquet would bear hints of Mikhail Bulgakov and José Saramago. Part political farce, part romantic parody, part crime thriller and part attempt at a unified theory of gravity and literary magnetism (an investigation into the strong and weak forces of literature and life), "Rex" is radiant with energy.

Prieto, Cuban-born, Russian-educated and, at the moment, a visiting professor at Princeton University, may be recalled for his "Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire." There, his narrator "J." was a smuggler who ran goods all over Europe -- trafficking in odd items (such as night-vision goggles) as he attempted to capture a rare butterfly for a client -- and traded letters with his girlfriend "V." Putatively the same narrator is expounding in "Rex," but here Prieto has given him an extreme makeover and severed a few tethers anchoring his novelistic balloon to "reality" as it is commonly viewed, except perhaps by Dalí or Picasso.

An example: After mentioning "the hatred I harbored against the Spaniard, that painter," Prieto's narrator, in love with the mother of the boy he is tutoring, finds her turn to him "and present me with her lips, rapidly revolving, pivoting on the axis of her neck, her eyes shooting out sparks, transformed by the sun into diamonds." Not only does the description mimic Picasso's way of seeing -- immediately after slamming him -- it also invokes by proxy the main story line, which, other than the narrator's passion for the mother, is about the boy's parents' creation and marketing of synthetic diamonds in a scam that could prove deadly to all concerned.

The narrator was immediately suspicious of the boy's parents, Nelly ("a courtesan and a murderess," easy to see both "in her way of walking, her calves speaking to me, her shoulder blades") and Vasily (gemologist or jewelist, "or whatever he was," into whose eyes the narrator looks "to see the images of however many corpses had imprinted themselves at the back of his iris"). Their great wealth -- real gold fixtures in the bathroom -- seemed inexplicable when the narrator showed up at their gated compound to interview as a tutor for Petya, their 11-year-old son. The couple's money, he tells Petya in the retrospective account that makes up the body of the novel, was "certainly not earned, as your mother tried to make me believe" in mutually contradictory explanations. This account is set up as a series of commentaries despite the narrator's revulsion at commentary, which he terms "execrable in itself."

"Language, an aqueous thing, foundationless, a river of words," Prieto's narrator observes, "no mere suspension of sediment washed along by chance but the immense briny depths of a living liquid," with "a profligacy of means." These are establishing metaphors with which Prieto works, and they are also a way to understand the intent of the novel as well -- as we are cautioned late in the book, "Everything that is written has an author, and every author, an intention."

And who is telling the story? "I'd prefer that you call me Psellus, though my name is something else, as you know. But from the eyes of Michael Psellus, from that sphere," he mentions. Historically, that would be from the perspective of a Byzantine emperor who wrote a chronology of empire, and the tutor's plan, the wild plot he concocts to save the lives of Nelly, Vasily and himself, and perhaps Petya too, from certain murder by Russian criminals they had swindled, is to swindle Russia itself. He will have Vasily proclaimed a new emperor of Russia, through acceptance first by the expatriates on the Costa del Sol. Hence the novel's regal title, "Rex."

The transformation of Vasily from a marital cheater and "a small-time crook, garroted by fear" into a royal presence, "a scientifically distilled monarch," would be worth witnessing, wouldn't it? "Wasn't it enough to make you die laughing?" the tutor asks. It is among the more phantasmagorical elements in "Rex," which intensify as the novel progresses. Yet when Petya begins to doubt the story -- "Isn't it a vision?" -- he is reminded that Einstein's experiments were carried out in thought, and what is being revealed is "a result no less immutable and trustworthy than C, the constant." Prieto invokes Aristophanes, who said he walked in air but contemplated the sun, and we can take that as the mission of "Rex." Any other questions, Petya?

Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.