by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
February 28, 2001
SEATTLE, Wash. -- If ever there was a writer destined by his strange life and high talent to write fiction of unclassifiable oddity, it is José Manuel Prieto.
Born in Havana in 1962, Prieto spent 12 years of his life in the moribund Soviet Union, where he acquired what must be near-native proficiency in Russian. He has translated into Spanish works by Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova - sufficient evidence of his taste and discernment.
His second novel, "Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire" (Grove Press, $24) came out in December of last year. So far as I can tell, it has gone almost unnoticed. There was one review in the New York Times, but I have seen no other.
It is not in my view a wholly successful novel, but no serious work of fiction with high literary ambitions should be simply passed over in silence.
The title in Spanish was "Livadia," which is the name of a small town on the coast of the Crimea where much of the action takes place. The publisher, bent on promoting it as "combining the intellectual sophistication and luminous prose of Nabokov with the world-view of a scion of Castro's Cuba," probably hoped that the reference to lepidoptera in the new name would enhance the Nabokovian aura.
Prieto himself, I should add, does what he can to summon up remembrance of the author of "Lolita" and "Pale Fire." Little hints that would be picked up only by adepts of the Russian master litter his pages.
But all this turns out to have been a bad idea. Whatever Prieto's prose is like in Spanish, the English of this pedestrian, vulgar and clumsy translation would never remind anyone of Nabokov's elegance and wit. (Example: "The water came right up to it, like in a house on stilts.") The oxymoron of the title - butterflies are doggedly diurnal - is justified by the story but is still slightly off-putting to those whose study of Nabokov has obliged them to be minimally familiar with these insects.
In form the book is an epistolary novel, but in form only, for the "letters" never seem to be from or to anyone in particular. Prieto demonstrates his erudition (á la Nabokov) by copious allusions to the European epistolary tradition from classical times to the present.
The picture of Soviet people, customs, and institutions is dead accurate, and sadly hilarious, and provides a plausible, realistic background for a foreground story of miasmic vagueness and weirdness. The first-person narrator, J, is in love with a young Russian woman, V, who works as a "nocturnal butterfly" (prostitute) in the U.S.S.R. and adjacent realms. He wants to smuggle her (sans passport) back into her own country.
His day job is in fact smuggling and fencing the non-human detritus, especially the military equipment, of a superpower that has gone belly-up and is hemorrhaging war materièl. His chief customer is a sinister Swede named Stockis, who is mad about all the martial trinkets and surplus battle gear (night-vision goggles, e.g.) that are to be had for a song.
Part of Prieto's bad luck is that reality overtook him before his novel came out: much of the smuggling intrigue is blunted by the fact that there are now actual catalogues (I wrote about them here last Fall) from which anyone can order this junk, including the entire uniform of a Soviet admiral for $995.00.
I won't give away more of the plot, and I hope that my sour remarks here will not prevent your giving this ambitious novel the chance that it has been largely and unjustly denied in the reviewing media.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus ofComparative Literature at Princeton University.