An interview with José Manuel Prieto

Carlos Fonseca

Photograph by Anna Weise

With the publication in 2010 of his complex, meditative novel Rex (Grove Press), Cuban writer José Manuel Prieto completed his Russian trilogy, and with it, a narrative project of singular value. The crux of his accomplishment hinges on the choice to narrate the impasses of our contemporaneity through the dislocated lens of the post-totalitarian Soviet present, rather than the perspective of Cuban exceptionality—an oft-exploited narrative path. Far from the picturesque aesthetics of the realismo sucio that marked the narrative poetics of many Cuban writers of his generation, Prieto finds the roots of his narrative voice in older genres, genres sometimes even older than the novel: his writing takes as its point of departure minor genres like the gloss, the commentary, the encyclopaedia, the letter. It is from there that his novels spring forth like intricate narrative machines that attempt, however, a critique of the bases of our modernity.

Taking as an excuse his coming departure to Germany—to participate in the prestigious Berliner Künstlerprogramm, which counts Mario Vargas Llosa and Imre Kertész among its past participants—I sat down with him to discuss, among other things, his approach to exploiting genre, to narrating as a Cuban writer from Russia, and the part played by "sensory hunger" in his work.

—Carlos Fonseca

In terms of how you work with genre through the novel: at times it seems that your tradition isn't merely a modern tradition—nor even a postmodern one–but a medieval tradition: the novel as gloss, as commentary and marginalia. For instance, the narrative of Rex works like a dialogue between reader and commentator. Before this, in your novel Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, we find reality read though another minority literary genre: the letter. I wonder where this almost pedagogic notion of the novel as a commentary on reading comes from, a gloss on a preceding text, or a Russian doll of citations, through which to view reality.

The genesis of The Russian Trilogy project has to do with an attempt at translation. When I began to imagine the first novel in the series, Encyclopaedia of a Russian Life, I envisaged a linear history: the protagonist imagines seducing a Russian woman, introducing her to the values of Communism. This is a little bit the plan of the novel: by analysing these values, which are so to speak occidental, you end up corroding the foundations of the socialist doctrine. This was the basic idea, the one that came to me in 1991. Soon I found myself with the issue of there being terms and concepts implicit in the Russian reality that were difficult to translate, that needed to be explained in order to be better understood, to the end that I began to work with footnotes.

I have an earlier story, "You've Never Seen Red Like This Before," in which there's a short preliminary narrative that starts on any old day one summer: a young man takes his girlfriend to the cinema, later they take a walk, and when night falls they go to a dance. But it all comes with extensive annotation, which is the story in itself, and it expands on itself like footnotes. The idea behind this structure is similar to the idea of Encyclopaedia of a Russian Life, which, as you know, organises itself alphabetically, with encyclopaedic entries and articles.

Narrating like this allowed me to adopt a certain essayistic tone, to manage these framing voices from a certain distance, to make frequent use of citations. I've always been interested in the use Borges makes of commentary. That is, to see the novel not only as mere narration, but to construct a text which also contains a reflection on the narrative device of which it takes advantage—in this case, that of the encyclopaedia or alphabetised cataloguing of the material, of the disparate segments of which it is formed. I have a long essay called "Las variedades de la experiencia novelística" in which I tackle exactly these narrative devices. And when I say "narrative devices," I refer to the multiple forms in which novelistic material, a narration, can dress itself up.

These approaches have of course an amount of risk, predicated as they are on the reader's sense of the history of a genre rather than traditional plot satisfaction, for example, or interest in what might happen to the characters.

My idea has been to find narrative devices that weren't created explicitly to tell stories, at least not in the sense of traditional literature. Out of this symbiosis emerges something interesting, I think—a mixture or a tension between different narrative devices, something which Dostoyevsky himself did, for example, with the serialized novel and the most traditional form of the novel. (He was a great reader of this "minor literature" from France in this period.) In this way, I was interested in the form of the encyclopaedia as a narrative device that was devised far before the emergence of the novel form, a genre whose beginnings we can date back, in a conventional way, of course, to the appearance of Don Quijote. I was interested in this idea of constricting the novel, which I wanted to write according to a certain fixed framework, if you like, in this case, the encyclopaedia. And, really, when you restrain the novel, unexpected things emerge out of it—it is enriched.

In Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, for example, I only let myself cite real letters, which also implies a clear restriction. On the other hand, I wasn't interested in doing a straight epistolary novel. In fact, the letters that the protagonist sends to my character, the narrator, don't ever appear. What really appealed to me instead was a wider reflection on the epistolary art and form which otherwise, apart from its most traditional use, could be employed to write a novel that was original in its form.

In Rex, on the other hand, my idea was to achieve some sort of an academic approach based on the idea of the veneration of a text. The adoration that the protagonist feels for El libro comes quite close to a pedagogic aspect of Marxism, its enthusiasm for citation and for holding on to that extreme fidelity to the text and to the original source. Before writing Rex I had been reading Thomas Aquinas assiduously, in particular one of the most beautiful treatises in his Summa, "Treatise on the Angels." In many sections of his text Aquinas calls Aristotle The Philosopher, making use of the term's most general sense. This interested me, to the point that in Rex the protagonist refers to Proust as The Writer: but one that the reader also ends up understanding is Kafka, is Borges, is Wells—in short, an amalgamated figure. In the writing of Rex, I read—in depth—many books about the art of commentary, of annotation, and many of the twists that appear in the text arise out of this.

Originally, I wrote an addendum to Rex called Comentarios Reales and which I had foreseen publishing at the end of the book. As is indicated by the name, it's a kind of long appendix in which many of the quotes that appear in Rex, the references, the consulted books, are broken down. It's something that I still plan to do: publish Rex followed by these "Real Commentaries." The title of this long appendix is itself a quote, of course; it alludes to the Comentarios reales de garcilaso, but also to the title of the novel, hence Reales, but I also use it in the sense that they are the true commentaries, not those that appear in this novel, which are fictional, pretend, and which serve to tell the story. These, however, have more of an academic appearance of the commentaries and notes that go with a book. Although I hardly need to say it, it also tells a story, one specifically of the writing of the novel, ending up being a continuation of the fiction. But what interested me in all of this, in the tone of Thomas Aquinas and medieval academia, in this tone of veneration, is the displacement of the author, situating him or her in a notion that precedes the romantic notion of the author as genius. The work as commentary is a formal idea that I'm very interested in: to make prose bounce off texts that aren't originally connected to it.

One of your big gambles as a Cuban narrator is to narrate from Russia: that is to say, about Russia, from its historical situation and the like. Cuba appears, but always in the margins, a little bit like the protagonists in your novels—somewhat anonymous and vague. At times I feel that this Russia that you imagine—an aristocratic and decadent Russia—is in a way the inverted image of Cuba's desired aim. How would you read this relationship between Russia and Cuba in your novels?

Many people are scandalized by the fact that these three novels aren't about Cuba. There are many novels written out of nostalgia: one travels abroad and reads his country of origin from a distance, at an advantage, so to speak. In my particular case I wasn't interested in doing that. The real reason, apart from aesthetic reasons, was the desire to blur lines, to create a post-national character. It might be a political criticism of the excessive presence of the national, of the notion of Cuban exceptionality. I was 19 when I arrived in Russia, for me a transforming experience, that of landing in another universe, totally distinct, enormous, foreign. And it was an experience of absolute mimesis, of assimilation. The distance disappeared quickly. In the Trilogy novels, from the start I realised that, for the story I wanted to tell it, didn't make more sense to stress whether the narrator was or wasn't Cuban. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert is another kind of foreigner of ambiguous nationality. I believe that Latin American literature has suffered from the certain need to account for the nation, to spell out a certain sense of exceptionality. I, on the contrary, am interested in immersion, or dissolution if you like.

With regard to this, I'm interested in another of your artistic gambles: when many of your contemporaries were narrating a kind of dirty realism from Cuba, associated with the crisis of "The Special Period," you were narrating from Russia—in imaginary terms—a kind of hygienic surrealism which nevertheless had a lot to do with the same historic event: the fall of the Berlin Wall. How do you yourself see this?

More than anything there's an aesthetic difference behind this. I believe that the dirty realist novels are guilty of a certain head-on approach and a wish of testimony, of denouncement, which often remains just that, without much literary scope. Dirt, ugliness—these are the scars of the nation, which should be shown. They end up as vignettes, outlooks, out of which develop certain characteristics of the supposed national reality, in this case Cuban. In a certain sense, they take up the role of the press in other countries. They are a kind of ethnographic literature. That's what I call them: ethnographic novels. In my case, I wasn't interested in this. I looked for the complete opposite: to contribute a certain patina, to blur the present, to accentuate that which is literary and—pompous though it may sound—most transcendent. In a Russian review of Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, for example, excessively complimentary, it said that in this novel everything seemed to be narrated from a distance of a thousand years.

My novels, moreover, are located in a post-totalitarian moment. After coming out of the totalitarian collapse, the characters ask themselves: And what do I do now? How do I get out of this? In the first novel in the trilogy, in the Encyclopaedia, my character imagines salvation by means of beauty. In Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire, the character imagines salvation through money (the search for the rare butterfly, the mythical yazikus). In Rex, the first part repeats the same schema as Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire: he looks to money—the sale of diamonds—for salvation. But in the second part the character understands that the only possible exit is not in the realm of reality, but in the realm of the symbolic. One has to recover oneself and save one's subjectivity in different ways, through personal reestablishment. To become king—from which the title of Rex comes—is thereby the main undertaking, and it has to do with spiritual rebirth. As you can see, my novels are not direct; they are artefacts of haziness, distance, and analysis.

Speaking of displacements, there is a significant temporal displacement in your novels. You choose to write about and from Russia, but not any old Russia, rather a very specific historical and imaginary location: Imperial Russia, Tsarist Russia. What do you believe you gain by narrating from this displaced and somewhat anachronistic position?

My novels are written from the moment when a country asks itself: At what point did this happen to us? How and when am I going to survive the crisis in which we find ourselves now, the downfall? It then regresses mentally to that moment when the country was something else. This might explain the success of Cabrera Infante. Cabrera displays a Cuba that disappeared, but that can still be perceived, almost sensorially, by means of his novels. Where to look for the values on which to build a new society? The Russian Trilogy revolves around the positions that arise around this question. In the case of Cuba, that is, the Cuba of the fifties, the appeal of an Old Regime to which we would have to return to unravel certain ambiguities is so reviled. Although not just there, logically: you cannot reconstruct the past. You can, though, revisit it in search of certain answers, certain goals.

In Rex there are fake diamonds and in Nocturnal Butterflies the yazikus: at the center of your novels there is always a desired object that is also a commodity. How do you see this obsession with commodity, money, and appearance?

The characters in my novels undergo this sensory hunger that they suffer within the gray, nightmarish universe of totalitarianism. Ismail Kadaré has something about this, about this hunger for objects, about him looking to satiate himself later in this disproportionate taste for luxury items that came up in the backlash to post-totalitarianism. Under totalitarianism you find veneration for Western things, for "well" finished objects. And all of this has profoundly to do with a powerful notion of liberty. In Russia, in the seventies and eighties, the government allowed small luxuries—country houses, automobiles, et cetera. And this, in the long run, provoked Perestroika, prepared them mentally to want to leave totalitarianism behind. This is something that interests me: the survival of certain petit-bourgeois cultural material in the Communist universe, which is something I'm working on in a current project. It's always the battle between beauty and utility, which always leads into a marked fetishism, almost invariably.

In many of the passages in my novels there is a very aesthetic consideration of the theme of beauty. It is not, though, a consideration merely for beauty, but about this sensory hunger which I've mentioned to you and which to such a great degree defines the totalitarian and post-totalitarian moments. In this sense, Rex is a point of culmination and distance: the protagonist has already removed himself from this, and criticises the bad taste of the nouveau riche with the excessive luxuries—with certain extravagances that he now looks upon with disdain.

To end, I'd like to ask you what's coming next. Now that The Russian Trilogy is complete, do you think your experimental inquiry into the novel form will go on?

I can't conceive of writing a novel for which I wouldn't develop a narrative device conceived specifically to tell the story I have up my sleeve. There's no doubt, it's an extreme strategy, but it is what I always do. I'm astounded by those writers who borrow another's form and then fit more or less what they want to say within it. Whatever it is I want to tell is inextricably linked to how I tell it. The thing that I call a narrative device is as much a part of the narration as the story itself, and, consequently, it is also a personal creation—I see it as something that I have to create, to look for.

As for the project that I'm working on right now: it's a nonfiction book, according to Anglo-Saxon classification, and it's a mixture between personal essay and reportage. Either way, this thing you call experimental inquiry is never a thing in itself: I strive—and the reaction of the readers, and criticism, has confirmed this—for the books to seize the reader, to move them, to be, moreover, an inquiry into the human soul, into the human condition.

translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes