Postmodern and Post-Soviet: “Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia,” Reviewed


Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia
by José Manuel Prieto; translated by Esther Allen
224 p.; Grove/Black Cat 

Perhaps the greatest divide between European and American literature lies in the weighty consciousness of history, or lack thereof. American literature, for numerous reasons that we can theorize about, largely lives outside of history and politics and rather dwells inside the individual, in the urgent now. European literature, in contradistinction, cannot outrun history or politics. Their authors feel the immense weight, burdens, and joys of ancient traditions, of the upheavals from previous decades demanding attention and a voice. In this vein, I find it wholly fitting that American literature often calls for and envisions a more engaged, sincere, genuine, political, and even moral writing while European literature, or what we would crudely umbrella under as translated literature, mostly desires the freedom of play and frivolity, a freedom from history and politics, and freedom from rebellions, occupations, wars, and massacres defining their interior life. No recent book captures both this tension and divide than Jose Manuel Prieto’s brilliant novel, Encyclopedia Of A Life In Russia. A literary sensation the world round, Prieto’s reception in America has taken a bit more time, but with the recent translation of this novel written in 1998, hopefully more will take notice of this rare talent.

The EOALIR, in the manner of all experimental literature, defies easy categorization or even description. Prieto does write the book in the form of an encyclopedia; an encyclopedia, the narrator tells us meant to capture the importance and nature of frivolity and the Russian experience:

The simplicity of the subject matter, the overtly trivial idea of frivolity of tangential living, diminishes the complexity of the method to some degree, even as it facilitates the task of keeping all the entries in mind. Moreover, the philosophy of the moment, which this Encyclopedia seeks to summarize, operates by instants, exists in the present.

As it does so, it also tells the story of post-Communist Russia, a country confused, uncertain about its past and future, veering towards the Occident, but uncomfortable with any sort of simple cultural co-opting. Old generals dine with young powerful capitalists, foreigners with natives, all confused as how to act, in a motley representation of the cultural explosion engendered by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prieto, through the lens of a narrator foreign to Russia but now living there for numerous years, explores the idiosyncrasies, neuroses, and loves of a people rising from the stupefying yet naively hopeful system of Communism. Prieto centers his abstractions around a basic story, a type of modern day love story between the narrator (named Thelonius Monk) and Linda. Thelonius uses Linda as a muse for his upcoming novel because of her striking red hair. He takes her around post-Communist Europe to taste the luxuries of now more capitalistic systems.

Using this as more concrete reality, Prieto then muses on a range of philosophical topics, from the nature of art to the importance yet frivolity of fashion:

There is an intelligence in beauty, a true feeling that can alter the silhouette of a pair of legs, penetrate the occult meaning of rouge and expensive face creams…expand the borders of the moment, to capture the signals, painstakingly, to stop the passage of time in a perfect second of heightened perception: the pleasing touch of a linen shirt, your full arched eyebrows, the breeze that dries us off after a warm bath.

Like in most experimental fiction, the parts sometimes do not fit easily, but even then Prieto rarely wastes words and even if he did, I would want to read his digressive thoughts. He writes, even in translation, in a dazzling dizzying prose of the masters, and his thoughts always feel unique, no matter the topic. (His discursions on technology, on fashion, and on literature feel important and essential, even 14 years later.)

What differentiates Prieto from a slew of similar authors tackling the similar topic of post-communism is not only his technical acumen, and his ability to meld experimental with traditional narratives, but his abiding empathy. As Americans, we tend to feel either an acute apathy or disgust towards any form of communism, philosophical or otherwise. Prieto, born and raised in Cuba, and having spent considerable time in Russia doesn’t craft any sort of manifesto or apology, but a sort of elegy to what was or what could have been. He gives voice to a world unknown to Americans, a world in which progress, at least of certain types are looked upon with wariness, a, a world in which material luxury represents an indulgence, maybe even a transgression, a world uncertain of the obvious assured goodness of this American Life.

Russia is struggling against its destiny, but the shadow of this fatalism pursues it. Russia is an old country and there one breathes the frozen air of multiple histories that bear out this theory of destiny. The Imperium collapsed under the pressure of purebred dogs, the once impossible dream of Jaguar convertibles and Persian carpets, undermined by the new goal of a pleasant way of life that, over time, had managed to replace all celestial objectives. A profound antagonism had become apparent between the quietism of the Doctrine and the dizzying scandal of disposable diapers: between the search for a future kingdom of truth on this earth and the “general line” of the century, which was to consume the present and consider the future no more than a mental construct.

In doing so he creates and evokes a realm of foreignness full of folk and cultural tales, the demands of tradition, lovely cultural absurdities; a world thousands of years old desperate for expression as it comes to terms with the onslaught of modernity, at a pace that prohibits thinking. Both a love letter to a lost world, and a vision of world being born before his eyes, Prieto captures the precariousness of national death and rebirth. While rooted deeply in the history and tradition of Russian culture, Prieto’s book transcends time and place as a book meant to be sipped, slowly, with a good helping of Kvas, treasured for its intelligence and warmth and celebrated for the life-affirming capabilities of an intellect attempting to give voice to a culture historically bogged down by our fears, insecurities, and propaganda.

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