In 1988, Czech novelist Milan Kundera published a personal dictionary of his “key words, problem words, words I love.” Not your average lexicon, “Sixty-three words” fuses history, philosophy, social-critique and autobiography, ingeniously invigorating a literary form often lumped with the Yellow Book on the excitement scale.
Ten years later, as if to prove that the reference-book format is an equally suitable medium for fiction, Cuban author José Manuel Prieto published a novel in the guise of an encyclopedia, recently translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen as Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia. Organized alphabetically from Abacus to Zizi, Prieto’s Encyclopedia combines entries on Soviet-era Russian culture with language philosophy, literary references, and anecdotes from the life of the novel’s narrator, a Cuban immigrant living in post-Soviet Russia under the pseudonym Thelonious Monk.
The most cogent description of the novel’s scant, nonlinear plot, which emerges piecemeal through the array of encyclopedic entries, is provided by Thelonious in the opening, introductory section:
THELONIOUS arrives in Saint Petersburg in search of LINDA, the young woman he requires in order to carry out a delicate experiment. They are to make a trip together to YALTA, in the Crimea, and later, if all goes well, to Nice. The story takes place from late spring to early winter of 1991, months before the COLLAPSE OF THE IMPERIUM.
This “delicate experiment,” we eventually learn, is the composition of a novel in which Thelonious aims to “model his discovery about frivolity onto the surface of the real world and study the influence of FLUORIDE on a young soul (a Russian soul),” that is, on Linda. His scattered accounts of his attempts to convince Linda to “pose for [his] novel” form the basis of the text’s story. Simultaneously a novel (by Thelonious’ own admission) and a reader’s guide for the novel Thelonious hopes to write, Prieto’s Encyclopedia can perhaps best be described as a novelized encyclopedic guidebook: a fictionalized, self-referential account of the process of preparing to write a work of fiction enclosed within a didactical framework.
The trouble with Prieto’s attempt at postmodern originality is that his Encyclopedia is wrapped in so many layers of meta-fiction and (seeming) irony that it’s often difficult to determine what it is you’re actually reading. Is it meta-fiction? Is it satirical meta-fiction (meta-meta-fiction)? Is it philosophy? Is it satirical philosophy? Is it a genuine formalist experiment? Is it satirizing formalist experiments? Is it all of the above? Is it something else entirely?
A case in point: Despite repeatedly emphasizing the idea of frivolity as the “central concept” of both this novelized encyclopedia and the novel he hopes to write, Thelonious doesn’t provide the concept with its own encyclopedic entry—the space it would occupy between “FOREST” and “GREAT GATSBY, THE” is conspicuously blank. Which is particularly strange—somewhat farce-like—when you recall that the text we are reading is intended as an instruction manual for Thelonious’ yet-to-be-written novel (and that this particular encyclopedia is rife with atypical encyclopedic entries). Are we supposed to consider Thelonious’ failure to directly confront his central idea a sign of his own frivolity? Should it color our interpretation of his other entries? Prieto’s Encyclopedia is often mystifyingly vague about its intentions.
This is particularly true when it comes to interpreting Thelonious’ sundry philosophies and his theories regarding the fall of the USSR—or as Thelonious calls it, “THE IMPERIUM.” Although sometimes piercingly insightful, more often that not, his philosophies are rendered partially, if not entirely, incomprehensible by his witheringly opaque language. An example: Thelonious notes that “To believe the IMPERIUM fell for purely economic reasons is to commit the sin of pedestrian materialism and ignore the teachings of Weber.” The sin of pedestrian materialism? The teachings of Weber? No matter their merit, it becomes difficult to give much mind to Thelonious’ philosophies when he’s too dense to recognize the value of rendering them accessibly within an instructional context.
(Thelonious’ semi-comical, pseudo-poetic description of his awakening to said philosophies doesn’t help instill much confidence in his intelligence either: “It took me years to ascend from the abyss of dreams to the superior levels of wakefulness. Before that, in the depths of existence as a multipod amoeba, I had no ears for the death rattle of the cetaceans in bloody struggle against the flesh-eating orcas.”)
Of course, given the Encyclopedia’s postmodern aesthetic, the consistency with which it seems to undermine it’s own intentions might be precisely the point. If one of postmodernism’s central conceits is the impossibility of objective knowledge, then perhaps Prieto’s Encyclopedia, by chronicling Thelonious’ struggle to articulate his ideas, can be understood as a (gleefully sardonic) demonstration of the frivolity of Thelonious’ attempt to provide the sort of lucid, objective knowledge encyclopedias presuppose, of the frivolity of his desire to describe with clarity “the truth about frivolity,” and, equally, to subject readers to that same struggle for lucidity. Perhaps.
But such intellectual justifications do not make reading Prieto’s Encyclopedia any easier an undertaking. Its peculiar structure, its fragmented nonlinear framework, its blustery philosophizing and skimpy plot, combined with its general crisis of identity—it’s neither quite a novel nor an encyclopedia nor philosophy nor social critique—make for a reading experience that often feels disjointed. American readers accustomed to associating Caribbean literature with the acrobatic hijinks of Junot Díaz or the psychological realism of Edwidge Danticat or the lyricism of Oscar Hijuelos be warned.
I keep returning to this quote by the late David Foster Wallace: “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.” Ultimately, the problem with Prieto’s Encyclopedia is that it’s so caught up in presenting its cynical, postmodern philosophies that it forgets to recognize the humanity of its protagonists. And, consequently, to tell us very much about life during and after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the end, Prieto’s inability to overcome the contradiction he has posited—the simultaneous utility and inutility of encyclopedias—not only disables him from telling us very much about the time, but renders Thelonious and Linda little more than floppy headed puppets in a grand postmodern play.