Kirkus Reviews QR Code
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF A LIFE IN RUSSIA by José Manuel Prieto

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF A LIFE IN RUSSIA

By José Manuel Prieto

Pub Date: Jan. 8th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2077-9
Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

As the title suggests, this is a novel in the form of an encyclopedia, so the narrative surges forward as the reader moves through alphabetical listings from “A” to “Z.”

Prieto makes his major characters pseudonymous, and the pseudonyms he chooses reflect the fascination with American culture that lies at the heart of the story. “Thelonious Monk,” the compiler of the encyclopedia, has met a stunning woman, dubbed Linda Evangelista, and is convinced he can make her famous, at least in part because of the splendor of her red hair. (He sees her as “the mathematical average of all the beautiful women [he’d] known in Russia, their profiles superimposed.”) Through a series of encyclopedia articles, we follow their progress from St. Petersburg to Yalta, with plenty of stops along the way for philosophical musings on both classical and modern culture. Monk is interested in everything from Adam Smith to London dandies (and their distinction from beaux, following the lines of an argument Nabokov lays out about Pushkin) to spitting. He ruminates on the sound of his false name, believing that Thelonious “sound[s] like a Nordic mammal,” on organdy, and on Russian white nights. He cites sources in German, French, Latin and (of course) Russian—and fortunately for the reader, provides translations for all of them. At times, he displays the edgy cynicism of Ambrose Bierce: “OCCIDENT, THE. The mirror in which Russia gazes at itself each morning to touch up its own image.” 

Offbeat and witty.