Up for Review: Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia

This one caught my eye because of the unusual narrative – the story is told using alphabetical encyclopedic entries that make up the notes an author has written for his novel.


Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by José Manuel Prieto, translated by Esther Allen

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

“A terrifyingly original writer, José Manuel Prieto’s prose shakes the walls of the literary kingdom.” —Gary Shteyngart

In Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia, José Manuel Prieto has beautifully crafted a kaleidoscopic portrait of modern life in Russia through alphabetical encyclopedic entries. Poetic, humorous, truth-seeking, and fanciful, Prieto melds literature, philosophy, and pop culture into a story of two misfits caught between old traditions and modern consumerism.

Thelonius Monk (not his real name) travels to Russia and meets Linda Evangelista (not her real name) in Saint Petersburg. They journey to Yalta, where he promises that he will make her red hair famous in the fashion magazines. In fact, he’s drafting a novel about her—his notes for the novel comprise this Encyclopedia. Thelonious and Linda think of themselves as avatars of consumer culture, navigating the border between art and commerce during the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. Unwittingly they parody Russian fascination with America and its fixation on beauty and celebrity. Their conversations combine advertisement copy and art criticism, their personalities are both bohemian and commercial, and their aspirations revolve around frivolity and enchantment.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia is a novel that defies chronology and conformity, and finds the sublime in the trivial, ranging from meditations on Bach and Dostoyevsky to Italian alligator shoes and toothpaste.

Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia was Prieto’s debut novel, first published in 1998 in Spanish. Black Cat, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, is publishing an English edition, to be released on 8 January 2013.

Add it on Goodreads
Order it at The Book Depository
The novel on the publisher’s website
Brief review on Publishers Weekly


About the author:
From Grove/Atlantic: José Manuel Prieto was born in Havana in 1962. He lived in Russia for twelve years, has translated the works of Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova into Spanish, and has taught Russian history in Mexico City. He’s the author of Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire and Rex. He has held teaching appointments at Cornell and Princeton, and currently teaches at Seton Hall University.

Blog (in Spanish)

The international literature festival, Berlin, 2003 (bio)
List of works on Goodreads



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