José Manuel Prieto
Whoever wishes to learn something about Cuba knocks on the wrong door when he or she approaches the Cuban writer José Manuel Prieto. As the son of a privileged doctor during the revolution, Prieto came into the world in Havana, in 1962, where he attended, among other learning institutions, the Communist Party Elite International Lenin School. But not long after acquiring his high school diploma he embarked on a journey which he describes, in his slim 2008 treatise, “How to Explain The Cuban Revolution to a Taxidriver”, as “fundamentally changing” his life. At the age of nineteen, Prieto departs for Novosibirsk to study engineering. Hailed from the tropics, he comes to learn with utter amazement not only to decipher the frigid outdoor temperatures on the basis of the formation of ice cycles on his windows, but also fells in love with the Russian language and literature. As the former Empire collapses at the end of the 1980s, Prieto is brutally caught in the odd “political thaw”, when Soviet subventions find themselves frozen and the foreign student is left without any financial means. But Prieto stays put; he remains in the country until 1994, after which he goes to Mexico City and acquires Mexican citizenship. Meanwhile he lives in New York City, where he teaches literature at the Seton Hall University. Keeping this basic data in mind makes it easy see Prieto – an avid traveler between languages and cultures – emiting literary sparks. According to Eva Karnofsky, in her 2008 article in the magazine Neue Zürchner Zeitung, he writes with the “prose of a world-literature obsessed, Russophile and experimental-friendly engineer.” The locations of his prose in his to date, two volumes of stories – a travelogue and the first installment of a trilogy – are set between Eastern Europe and Russia, and the prose of these works always impresses by way of its rich and finely woven network of inner-literary references. Obliged to the “cuban” magic realism tradition are actually only the scenes that take off in part in fantastically spiritual hallucinatory excess, in which Prieto consciously allows the selectivity between dream and reality to blur. Prieto became internationally known in 1999 with “Liwadija“, the second part of his Russian trilogy, first published in Germany in 2004 and quickly translated in several languages. This first part of this trilogy, “Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia”, from 1996, has long awaited translation. In 2007 “Rex” (in Germany, in 2008), the third part of the trilogy, appeared – a wildly humorous and at the same time detail-ridden farewell to the Soviet Empire’s downfall complete with its famed ideology, its communism. Whether detailed miniatures about the post-Soviet depression faced with the tough laws of a suddenly unbound free market like in “ Liwadija”, or the perfidious side blows to the anything but thrifty shoddy types creating the upstarts in “Rex”, one notices the degree to which that Prieto creates from his own viewpoint and wealth of personal experiences. But he creates with an equal joy from the store of great world literature – and the post-modern storyteller’s box of tricks. In “Liwadija” he not only plays with biographical parallels – the trilogy’s narrator being a certain J.P. – but also consciously plays with wrong directions and locations. The novel – the story of a Cuban smuggler who receives letters from a woman in a Russian nowhere, that left him before he de facto came to love her – is a literary-historical puzzle in which both Nabokov as well as Mozart play roles and engage in a famous literary exchange of letters. The structure of the dictionary serves as an organizing element in “Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia”, according to the letter in “Liwadija”. In “Rex”, Prieto assumes the role of a tutor, who explains the world to the pubertal son of a mafia couple based on just a handful of books, for instance Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. In this novel Prieto effectively mixes trashy writing with social reportage, the criminal novel spiked with moments of satire and pastiche. But beware! One should not allow oneself to being taken to hoodwink by the artful and light-hearted surface of these three novels: Especially with “Rex”, Prieto proves himself to be an author of both scholarly depth as well as a profound writer. We can read his Russian trilogy, translated into gripping German with linguistic finesse by Susanne Lange, deciphering from it a kind of “sentimental education” against the backdrop of scholarly contradictions between spirit and material as the story of a man who, disappointed by the deceptions of a false ideology, turns toward pure materialism but then becomes the savior of a beautiful soul and finally realizes that the world, in its purest form, can be understood with the help of the spirit – namely through the seeing glasses of literature. According to Prieto, he also reflects with his work the interrelationship between perceiving reality and its transformation through literature and the unfolding of a literature of multiple correspondences. This is achieved via many stray ends and not least of all a subtle depiction of the writer’s migratory experiences. Most of all, every line of his work recalls an inherent, joining of various strengths. In his discussion of “Liwadjia“, Prieto’s writing colleague and kindred spirit Aleksander Hemon says that writing means involving the placeless – people and things – in the relationship. And the frozen Cuban literature with its tendency to promote the tropical cliché and vulgar realism, makes him, Prieto, who has also championed a name for himself as a translator of Russian literature into Spanish, appear to be a great outsider. Unwaveringly, as one of the most outstanding representatives of a younger generation of Latin American writers, whose range spans from regionalism to subjects of tremendous global worth, he offers a highly original body of work which defies every definition.

Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Karl Edward Johnson