Another Nabokovian puzzle shrouded in carefully maintained ambiguity, from the acclaimed author of the Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire (1999).
The book is divided into 12 “commentaries” narrated by J., a young Cuban intellectual employed by wealthy Russians Vasily and Nelly to tutor their preadolescent son Petya in their lavish home on Spain’s moneyed and prestigious Costa del Sol. They initially balk when J. explains his pedagogical strategy: to immerse his young pupil in the teeming world of In Search of Lost Time. Marcel Proust’s multivolume masterpiece, J. believes, “is a machine for thinking, the greatest compendium of instructions ever written.” He persuades Petya’s imperious parents and is permitted to proceed. Meanwhile, mounting evidence suggests that the many diamonds with which the beautiful Nelly decorates herself are counterfeit jewels that she and Vasily create and illegally market to the dangerous displeasure of Russian Mafiosi, several of whom winter in this very Spanish demi-paradise. J. surmises that a pair of Russian thugs, Kirpich and Reketa, are pursuing the family. Still, anyone who imagines himself a commentator on ancient texts and icons, as J. does, should realize that objects and especially people are not necessarily what they appear to be. As mirrors reveal other mirrors, angles and perspectives, J. is enlisted in Nelly’s delirious plot to “prove” that Vasily, a descendant of the Romanovs, is the rightful Emperor of Russia. J.’s fantasies collapse, and his imaginative complicity haunts him, while suggestive literary allusions—to H.G. Wells, Dostoevsky, Kafka and Shakespeare, as well as Nabokov and of course Proust—simultaneously explicate and deepen the mysteries.
A shimmering Fabergé egg of a novel, so hermetic and tightly knit that many readers may fall by the wayside. But those who loved the inspired legerdemain of Prieto’s debut should not miss it.