TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Jose Manuel Prieto’s Rex is a novel like none other. Its epigraph, from Bishop Berkeley, “Things are what they appear to be,” is the first of many indications that things are not what they appear to be. The storyline might sound like the plot of a thriller: the narrator, a young, Spanish and Russian-speaking man, arrives at the home of a superrich Russian couple living on the Costa Brava, near Marbella, in Spain. He has been hired as a tutor to their young son, Petia. It quickly becomes clear that something is amiss in the household; the Russian couple are mafiosi involved in the manufacture of fake diamonds and they are hiding out in Spain, terrified of being discovered by former business partners whom they swindled. But why does the family decide that the solution to their problem will be for the husband to pose as the heir to the throne of Russia, the new Czar? And why does the tutor decide that the only thing he needs to teach young Petia, the only thing on earth worth learning about, is A la recherche du temps perdu (the Book) by Marcel Proust (the Writer)? And who is the Commentator, the narrator’s terrible bete noir? Prieto’s gorgeous, shimmering fever dream of a novel is an extended reflection on reality and appearance, sincerity and irony, authenticity and commentary. I won’t tell you which side wins in the end.
I left the house that same night, Petia, and walked all night under huge leaden clouds, the sky lit by bolts of lightning, struggling to make headway against a strong wind. Letting myself be carried along by my feet and by my despair at being unable to indulge in the anticipated relaxation next to your parents’ pool, hating and fearing my employers, your mother, your father, asking myself over and over where on earth I had ended up and whether I should go directly to the nearest FBI office and hand them in, like the deplorable citizens seen in certain deplorable Hollywood movies who think that informing on someone, betraying someone in any way-that an informer can help his country or save it from danger. Regretting having taken the job with them, those disturbing Russians. “Careful!” I must have told myself as I walked toward Marbella and nighttime in Marbella, “Be careful with those two.” On top of all the money and what dangerous characters they undoubtedly were: the stone! Going toward the night, and in the night, though I didn’t know it yet, a discotheque I hadn’t imagined to be so near, a structure big as a castle, big as the Ishtar Gate.
Without meaning to go in. But the allure of a spotlight sweeping across the sky, I thought at first, a movie theatre, that beam of light announcing a premiere and I stopped and saw, then, that the building was a disco, a castle’s massive masonry handsomely overblown and outsized. Painted in every color, the whole palette: battlements, buttresses, the fake drawbridge. The pale tints, the over-reliance on gray during the years since Bergotte’s death, in the book, now fully understood and rectified. A structure that would have gladdened Bergotte’s heart, his discovery of color comprehended and applied to the building’s gigantic walls, his discovery that thus, with various layers of color. The deep yellow he finds in Vermeer, to which other more Disneyesque hues had been added: phosphorescent greens and acrylic reds, the magenta door where two Nubian slaves stood guard, ponderous and muscular as a pair of winged bulls. Understood: a rest, a place-when I’d gone inside and had a look- where my arms and legs could set out in all tranquility for distant points, allowing the whole matter of the stone to settle into the air as I moved, letting it flow freely without thinking of any site or niche for it.
Swinging through the air with a thousand levels of freedom, spinning freely at every angle, reaching to far more than the four cardinal points: no mere reenactment of a medieval machine, but any and all points on the sphere. In front, behind, making stops at sonorous stations, my arrival marked by the music at the end of a measure, the precise spot in the air where my hips and shoulders. Smooth as a machine skillfully articulated on tiny ball bearings, endlessly spinning to the sound of the music, my head taken to a thousand different places by the undulations of the dance, exploring the world around me. Tunes I could dance to perfection, tunes about which, Petia, I could have taught classes, entire, extensive courses, being exceedingly erudite in the secrets of the dance, a connoisseur of its every in and out, an expert at moving back and forth with the ease conferred by much youthful practice. Or, as the writer calls it, referring to Saint-Loup: the elementary gymnastics of a man of the world.
But then a triumph, a triumph and a truth on the part of the commentator, Petia! What a surprise lay in store for me, attained at the center of that sphere by revelation. A thought that forced me to stop my arms falling back toward my torso like the appendages of one of Walt’s machines. How I stopped, approached in astonishment, the instant the night’s group began making music and, watched their performance, petrified, never having suspected that something like that. The way the singers, young black men, had of moving across the dais, reaching the edge and retreating backward, as if tired, weary. Realizing, without ever having thought of it before, seeing, confirming so unmistakably the extent and degree to which the spirit of commentary. Permeating and making its nest in their innocent souls, speaking through their mouths. Arms dangling like bear cubs on a riverbank ambling toward their bear parents on two legs with none of the happiness of having caught a fresh salmon, grabbing derisively at their tails, pointing with the left paw, skeptical: “Look what I caught. Call that a fish? You call that a salmon?”
Songs I myself used to hum a few years ago, songs I’d heard, I remember it very well, while selecting a terrific pair of pants in a store, a song which that autumn, early that autumn, had filled me with happiness every time I heard it sung by a man who had something to say first (an Englishman, a young Englishmen), being commented upon now by these musicians with the disdain, the profound baseness of commentary. Hardened, old, the young black musicians as commentators, not moving forward like the kind of singer who seeks to convey something to the audience, who may even leap into the air, full of emotion. Here shifting from side to side, shuffling, never departing from the floor’s level plane, peering out from behind their barricades, incredulous, with nothing to say about themselves, about their own lives, but something to say, apparently, about the song they were commenting on as if they were intoning a Gregorian chat. Only a fragment selected for utilitarian reasons, a passage first cited in scholarly fashion: author, place and year of publication. Then they proceeded to comment upon it, reeling off words in weak voices, without pause, having lost, generationally, the skill, the faith in new songs, in melodies that would make them run to the edge of the dais and put their hands to their chests in passion. No, not at all: cool, you know? Arms at their sides like teenagers with very long arms, looking out from beneath their eyebrows, frowning, faces turned toward the floor.
The stone in my pocket weighing heavy on me. Feeling like going into the men’s room, taking it out in one of the stalls, studying it beneath the halogen’s rays. Now in all bathrooms, those lights, which go on and off with a pleasant lethargy, have you noticed? Not the sudden onset of incandescent light, but a more human rhythm in that light, Petia. To turn the stone over in the palm of my hand, scrutinize it more closely, a real stone, a diamond in the rough? Which I would not have wanted to do in the taxi for fear that the driver, an Albanian, would see me in the rear view mirror and pretend to turn off onto a shortcut: that drawback. No weight on my conscience, for having stolen it? From a pair of thieves? Nothing like that. Simply paralyzed and filled with distaste, at that moment, by this apparent triumph and this apparent truth of commentary. As if the commentator himself were lurking in wait for me in the corridor leading to the bathroom, to suddenly take corporeal form and tell me: “You see? I was right. Even those musicians*Š” All stories, all combinations of notes, all original melodies having-make no mistake about it! -ended. Nothing left but to comment, as those boys from America have grasped.
I didn’t linger an instant over this. I saw across the whole width of the mirror that it wasn’t his truth. That perhaps no more than, and with this sole justification, the principle of commentary for pedagogical purposes. The method of teaching that could be extracted from it and the way I would organize my classes after that night. Only important in that way, as a pedagogical methodology, with that lone dispensation. My career as a tutor, all my pedagogical activity geared to commentary. And didn’t that make sense? In this case? Either hide it from you, pretend I had better things to say, something better to introduce you to in the book for all our days, the gold mine of wisdom that is the book? All I had understood, though barely, the afternoon I had to defend it from Batyk’s stupid, unfair attack. But I didn’t know how, in what way to bring you closer to the book, by what method or procedure!
Though only as a pedagogical method or procedure, I repeat, the method of commentary, contemptible, execrable in and of itself, discovered that night, its only application, fortuitously owed to the discovery of the stone and to those young blacks, their skepticism and contempt. So very similar, in that, to the commentator: the same fallen arms, the same hardened, cynical gaze.
An apparent triumph and an apparent truth of the commentator!
You may be thinking: a certain intelligence and a certain subtlety in that, in the commentary and the commentator. The portions of text he ripped steaming from books and about which he spoke with subtlety and in detail, about the strangeness of those books and the strangeness of their authors. Good, this; even, at times, praiseworthy. But never addressed, as I did from then on with you, declaring openly: yes, commentary; yes, commentaries. Rather just the opposite: he always took care to appear to be just that, a commentator, and he always avoided citing or commenting on any text by the writer. Remaining faithful to the medieval custom of not citing, making an exception only for the moderns, he said. The writer having been a contemporary of his, and he himself knowing full well in the depths of his dark heart that this was the greatest writer who had ever lived, before whom other lesser writers who in their time were taken for great writers would see their bright shine clouded over, their prestige diminished. Writers whom legions of readers would pass by without even pausing, going to prostrate themselves at the feet of the writer like those ordinary people who throng to adore the body of a great man, more important and visible than they themselves even when dead. And he isn’t dead, the writer, on the contrary: more alive than the most alive of the living. Those people, those writers who have not been afraid, who have seen the force with which the writer’s pages find their way through the weave of their breasts, have given in at the sight of such verdancy and exclaimed: the greatest! What to write after that? How to write and what to write if everything is said right here? Isn’t it proof of truly human truth and humility to huddle beneath his wing and limit ourselves to turning his pages and commenting upon him without pretending to be creating or writing anything new, simply glossing him as an Authority, as was done, with infinite wisdom and modesty, by the Doctors of the Church who were in no way inferior in intelligence to today’s professors, but far superior: Chrysostome, Celsus far greater, but humble, you know? The wickedness and temerity of innovation held in check and repudiated, telling ourselves in the depths of our hearts: he has said everything, everything is written in him, let us prostrate ourselves and dedicate ten years, fifty years to extracting truths from this book. To interpreting its message. There is matter and fact here for centuries of exegesis, for a whole millennium, Or is it that the commentator was confident of writing a mental prodigy such as this himself? Or that he was calculating, by not declaring himself as such and lying, that his books, his work, would be viewed as a great and primary work like that of the writer? Is there not deception here? Masquerade? Bad, bad.