By Trine Tsouderos
4:34 PM PST, January 4, 2013
Cuban author José Manuel Prieto's playful and fascinating book, “Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia,” is, according to Prieto's narrator, an encyclopedia-style guide to a book the narrator is planning to write about a man named Thelonious Monk who meets a redhead named Linda Evangelista in St. Petersburg. The book unfurls as encyclopedia entries, each tied somehow to Russia or Monk and Evangelista, who engage with a very minimal plot. Essentially, they meet. They talk. They visit the Soviet seaside town of Yalta. They think about going to France. That's about it.
But with these encyclopedia entries, Prieto has built a book of vivid impressions of Soviet and Russian culture. Prieto lived there for 12 years and translated Russian authors into Spanish. He is a keen observer of Russia, able to capture small moments that trigger memories in anyone, including myself, who has traveled to this part of the world.
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His narrator's description of what a hard frost means in St. Petersburg will earn a smile from those who have visited this frigid place in winter, with icy gales blowing off the Gulf of Finland:
"This morning when I went downstairs to shake out the carpets, I realized immediately we must be very far below zero when my eyelashes grew heavy with a coating of ice. It happened in a single blink."
It is fitting that "Encyclopedia" is set in Russia, land of the bibliophile, because that's what the book really is about. It's about books and the role of texts in this age of Wikipedia, of Google Books, of ambitious projects to scan all of written human knowledge into the digital cloud. It's also seemingly about the world of hyperlinks, of mashups on YouTube, of cut-and-paste, about the idea that someday everything knowable will be knowable by everyone.
All of this has fueled a fascinating and sometimes heated debate.
On one side are folks like Wired magazine founding executive editor Kevin Kelly, who wrote an essay in The New York Times Magazine in 2006 called, "Scan this Book!" Kelly enthusiastically described efforts to scan every book ever written and merge them all into a "universal library of human knowledge."
"All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the universal library as you might add more words to a long story," Kelly wrote in his Times magazine essay. "On this screen, now visible to one billion people on earth, the technology of search will transform isolated books into the universal library of all human knowledge."
On the other side are skeptics like dreadlocked digital age guru Jaron Lanier, whose 2010 manifesto "You Are Not A Gadget" sounded the alarm at such efforts, arguing that they would degrade what it means to be human and crimp creativity by devaluing it. Why write a book if you are not going to be paid for it, and if your work is going to be uploaded into the cloud, mashed up, cut up and pasted up any way the masses like, with authorship lost or simply ignored along the way?
Prieto's "Encyclopedia" is, in essence, such a mashup. Its format is stolen from encyclopedias. It is packed with clips and quotes from other texts borrowed from around the globe, from different moments in time, even from (purported) Soviet elevator instructions. Some entries stylistically echo writing by beloved Russian authors like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol. The very names of the main characters are ripped from the worlds of jazz and fashion.
Prieto's narrator's description of his "encyclopedia," available in a bound book made up of physical paper and ink, could also be an apt description of the Internet:
"The entries are like black holes, exits into universes of other meanings, junctures crossing through the mass of the text to give it cohesion. Such a structure presupposes a reading that will be non-linear and unending ...."
Prieto's narrator even kicks off his entry for "bibliosphere" by quoting Prieto's novel, "Rex," published before "Encyclopedia." This "bibliosphere" sounds a lot like the universal library of Kelly's dreams:
"Its thin walls — thick as a single page from the Bible — harbor all texts that have been written and all those being written at this moment (including this one), their surface ceaselessly expanding."
After exploring the "bibliosphere," many would walk away feeling "dejected," Prieto's narrator writes, "having deduced that nothing new can be created."
But, cheer up: "All that remains then is to discover the generative nature of the BIBLIOSPHERE, its capacity to create texts out of itself." Claiming to quote the British Museum, Prieto's narrator writes, "If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all of the books in the British Museum."
The book's insight is that this brave new digital world may seem very new, but it is not. We have always lived in this world of hyperlinks. This mashing up and cutting up has been going on forever because human knowledge is built on the "cloud" of human knowledge that came before it.
But, the narrator also warns against going too far down Kelly's path. Under the heading, SUMMA TECHNOLGIAE, the narrator describes a state in which virtual reality technology becomes embedded in our brains, feeding us images of the world we want to see:
"To walk naked through the Garden is to have no contact with this real world where you and I live. Therein is a paradise of vivid colors and simple forms, the pure and archetypal pleasures that in our earthly life we do no more than clumsily brush against."
We will forget that we are living in a fantasy, until one day, in a nod to the Old Testament (and perhaps to the movie "The Matrix"), we "awaken in the Garden of Delights" and "the serpent whispers the terrible truth in our ear; we break through the membrane, open the door and discover our own nakedness."
So much of this rings true as companies create technology that can recognize faces in the photos we upload, collect data on everything we do online, and digitize every bit of human life they can while we increasingly live our lives online, virtually. More and more, our screens give us what we want, or what they calculate we want.
As a reading experience, "Encyclopedia" mirrors our hyperlinked, mashed up, online lives. This book is not meant to be read from page one to the end. Instead, the reader is encouraged to skip around, allowing each entry — and curiosity — to lead to others, back and forth, until everything is read.
It's a fun experience. But it's also one curiously devoid of the pleasures one usually enjoys while reading a novel. The story of Thelonious and Linda is scattered throughout the book, out of order, and because of this, it is almost impossible to connect with them. They never seem real. There is no emotional heart.
And perhaps this is the point of "Encyclopedia." What is lost and what is gained with this sort of life? And where, Prieto seems to be asking, are we headed?
Trine Tsouderos is a former science and medical reporter for the Tribune and is now a Chicago-based healthcare media director at a global communications firm.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia
By José Manuel Prieto, Grove Press, 224 pages, $15.95 (paperback)
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