March 2013

Elizabeth Kiem


Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto

I read Jose Manuel Prieto's numinous portrait of Russia just after the collapse of the Soviet Union from beginning to end. Then I read it from end to beginning. Then I reread the letter C. Then I got out the sticky tabs to mark the entries that I wanted to read, again, in any order.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a meditation posing as a reference book disguising a five-finger plot. It is, ostensibly, about an expatriate adventure in Russia at the end of an era. But its novelty is its schizophrenic insistence on the instant and the simultaneous, forcing the reader to travel laterally across a landscape that is anything but chronological. In this way, Prieto's "encyclopedia" is more like a cartoon... with no drawn images.

Imagine a strip that tells the story of two strangers becoming an inseparable pair. The building blocks of the story, the cells of the strip, are concepts that have been voided of their philosophical weight and replaced with hints on how to assemble a narrative. Read left to right, and you might understand that Thelonius Monk loves many women, particularly beautiful women, but not the one who thinks poorly of the lout that drops bon bons in her champagne. Read from right to left, and you will gather that Linda Evangelista was, in a prior life, a dissident poet, a bourgeois muse and a modernist naiad but now is disguised in stripes. Read the same passage literally, rather than between the four lines of a frame, and you learn of a letter, a dinner, a death and a voyeur.

And that is just the letter C.

Should you skip the entries for R, you will miss a sub-story involving wiretaps, security alarms, and goons in frock coats. But still there will be Thelonius and Linda making their way to Yalta, repeatedly blocked by other framed diversions -- sometimes a historical aside (LENIN -- the swine); sometimes a pun (VANILLA ICE) and sometimes an actual impediment (BOSCAGE -- or FOREST, CONIFEROUS).

There are writers who are at their freest when exercising form. I don't know if Prieto is one of them, but he is certainly nimble in his self-imposed constraints. Prieto, a Cuban who spent twelve years in Russia, first as a student engineer and then as a translator and a writer, clearly regards a reference book as first and foremost, a gospel of ephemera. His encyclopedia, for all its universality (OCCIDENT, The; PETER I; AGRICULTURE [as practiced in villages]), is sharpest when specific. And it is a very specific reader that will recognize his references to Vrubel's Demon as a foreigner, the abacus as a symbol of Russia's inscrutability, and the elevator as a nation in denial of its own mediocrity.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, published first in Spain in 1998, is dated -- in the best sense of the word. It is, like all good encyclopedias, redolent of the era in which it was compiled. In this, it is a text that can only enlighten readers that have come to the source with their own cross-references. It is an encyclopedia that, wherever you begin to read, will at some point contradict its aforementioned items. Much like Russia. Much like knowledge.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto
Black Cat
ISBN: 978-0802120779
224 pages