Title: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia (Goodreads)
Author: José Manuel Prieto
Translator: Esther Allen
Published: Grove Press, 2013
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback
Buy: Amazon, Book Depository, Kindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)
Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia tells the story of Cuban immigrant Thelonious Monk (not his real name) living in post-Soviet Russia. Monk loves women, many of them, particularly beautiful women. In St Petersburg he meets a young woman named Linda Evangelista (also not her real name) and after brief affair and some correspondence the two strangers become an inseparable pair. He takes her to Yalta where he starts work on a new novel about her, his notes for this novel comprise of this Encyclopaedia.
This is a really tricky novel to talk about, let alone try to understand but I will try to do my best. The novel explores these two misfits as they try to explore through a world that is changing. They are caught between old traditions and modern consumerism. I suspect that Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is semi-autobiographical as José Manuel Prieto spent twenty years in Russian. Not knowing much of José’s life only leaves me to speculate, but I have to wonder if he is Thelonious, then who is Linda (real name Anastasia Stárseva according to an entry in the ‘L’). She comes across as a really interesting and mysterious character, a modernist who in a past like was an unorthodox poet and bourgeois muse.
The novel is a fusion of history, philosophy, social-critique and in my opinion autobiographical fiction. Though, like many other postmodern novels, there is a degree of difficulty in reading it; the rewards are great but I can’t help wondering just what I’m actually reading here. It’s a satirical, philosophical, meta-fictional encyclopaedia which is evocative of the era in which it was compiled in. This makes it incredibly complex and that would require more knowledge to understand it better. There are references that range from Bach to Dostoyevsky but also consumerism. I found a lot of nods to Russian literature and a better knowledge of this (especially Checkov) would be a huge asset to this novel.
The characters think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. This means we get this interesting perpective of a changing Russia. Mixed in are conversations about advertisement copy and art criticism. This is invoking a blending (and changing) from the old traditional high art to a more commercial culture.
I love the way that the novel is broken into mock Encyclopaedia entries; it was an interesting narrative type but surprisingly informative. The book did force me to flip between entries, I often found myself going back and forth but this ended up creating an ever-deepening picture of the world they are living in. Reading Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia runs the risk of looking like an idiot while trying to understand this overly complex novel but the reward is far greater and in the end well worth the effort.
I did take me a while to get through this book and even longer to put together my thoughts from the notes I made (yes, I’m trying to write notes now, does it reflect in my reviews?) but I’m so glad I read this novel. The novel is packed with wit, irony, philosophical thought and the written in a poetic voice. This is a translated book from Spanish and I can’t help but be angry that something can sound so beautiful after being translated out of its original language. If you are not afraid of post modernist novels and are willing to put the time and effort into this book, then reading Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia will be highly rewarding experience.