In Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, José Manuel Prieto has beautifully crafted a kaleidoscopic portrait of modern life in Russia through alphabetical encyclopedic entries. Poetic, humorous, truth-seeking, and fanciful, Prieto melds literature, philosophy, and pop culture into a story of two misfits caught between old traditions and modern consumerism.
Thelonius Monk (not his real name) travels to Russia and meets Linda Evangelista (not her real name) in Saint Petersburg. They journey to Yalta, where he promises that he will make her red hair famous in the fashion magazines. In fact, he's drafting a novel about her - his notes for the novel comprise this Encyclopedia. Thelonious and Linda think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. Unwittingly they parody Russian fascination with America and its fixation on beauty and celebrity. Their conversations combine advertisement copy and art criticism, their personalities are both bohemian and commercial, and their aspirations revolve around frivolity and enchantment.
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a novel that defies chronology and conformity, and finds the sublime in the trivial, ranging from meditations on Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and toothpaste.
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I managed to finish this really clunky book but it was a chore the whole way through. Experimental constructs are fine if the story moves along or if the construction adds value - but this one fails on both counts. It's also really badly translated (or constructed, it's impossible to tell), bristling with sentences such as:
"That is: 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."
"Starred Review. Prieto's formally audacious novel ... has genuine resonance in the age of celebrity, and it bubbles with energy and mischief. Quirky and consistently surprising." - Publishers Weekly
"The narrative surges forward ... Offbeat and witty." - Kirkus Reviews
"Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia embodies the intelligence and absurdity of the Russian soul." - David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World
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José Manuel Prieto was born in Havana in 1962. He lived in Russia for twelve years, has translated the works of Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova into Spanish, and has taught Russian history in Mexico City. He's the author of Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire and Rex. He has held teaching appointments at Cornell and Princeton, and currently teaches at Seton Hall University.
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