Toward a Coherent Vision of the 20th Century—Or, Why Jorge Volpi Is My New Favorite Novelist

Season of Ash

by Jorge Volpi (translated by Alfred MacAdam)

Open Letter / University of Rochester Press

ISBN: 978-1-934824-10-8

Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash is the kind of novel that reminds me why I read novels in the first place, but it’s also the kind that makes me wonder why I bother to write.  Before the end of this review, I am going to try to convince you that Volpi is a genius, that you have to buy this book, and that he’ll end up with the Nobel Prize in Literature if there is any justice in the world (which there might not be…)—but before I attempt all that, you should know who Jorge Volpi is, as he is not yet well-known to North American readers.

Jorge Volpi, born in the internationally tumultuous year of 1968 in Mexico City, has written nine novels, including one other, In Search of Klingsor, that has been translated into English and which has won prizes in Spain and France, as well as Volpi’s native Mexico.  He is one of the founders (along with Ignacio Padilla, Pedro Ángel Palou, et al) of the “Crack Movement” in Mexican literature, a movement attempting to free itself from what its members perceive as the chains of magical realism, hoping to return to the joys found in the work of, for example, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges.  Volpi studied law at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and holds his PhD in Spanish philology from Universidad de Salamanca in Spain.  He has worked as a lawyer, a political aide, and as a scholar.  The evidence of this political/legal praxis and this scholarly knowledge certainly show up in his work, though never pedantically or gratuitously.  In the world of Spanish-language literature, he is known for his wide-ranging intelligence, the ambition of his work, his intricate plots, and a subtly dark humor.

Okay…that is an inadequate and rushed introduction to the man and his career, now on to an equally inadequate discussion of his marvelous novel.

Season of Ash opens with the infamous 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl.  (So, okay, here I have an admission: I rather disliked the first few paragraphs of the novel—so much so, in fact, I was disappointed I’d agreed to review the book, since I was worried the rest of it would be equally unpleasant.  I mention this for two reasons—to let you know I’m not such a fan of Volpi’s novel that I can’t admit its failings, and to make sure if you pick up a copy of the book, that you force past the first two pages, because after that, while there are occasional lapses of mastery, it borders on perfection.)  Here is Volpi, several pages in, at his lyric finest, personifying the radiation from the reactor’s meltdown as a monster the hopeless Soviet soldiers die trying to fight:

Wind and rain were carrying its humors toward Europe and the Pacific, its dregs were piling up in lakes, and its semen was filtering its way through the geological strata.  The monster was in no hurry.  It was patiently planning its revenge: Every baby born without legs, without a pancreas, every sterile sheep, dying cow, every rusty lung, every malignant tumor, every eaten-away brain would celebrate its revenge.

That wide narrative view—which takes in so much geography, time, and human suffering—is one of the joys throughout the novel.  The various plotlines, however, occasionally focus very closely on certain characters, the POV embedding so deeply into the consciousness of a particular character in the ensemble cast that we forget the novel spans four continents, eight decades, and over a dozen important characters (not to mention such historical figures as Joseph Stalin, Ronald Reagan, and Boris Yeltsin).  Though, now looking over the above excerpt, I see just how intricately Volpi weaves his narrative lines, how flawlessly he modulates his narrative registers; I say this because while I enjoy the excerpt by itself, it loses much (most?) of its power out of context, where we see Soviet soldiers sent to their deaths, ordered to bury the site of the incident with sand, ordered to axe to death all the animals in the region and incinerate them, all the while dying slowly or quickly of radiation poisoning.  We also are worried about the political wellbeing of the scientists involved as we read all this.  And on, and on.

Volpi’s scholarship and knowledge of international law and politics complements his novelistic powers wonderfully.  With only a few well-placed and concisely explained historico-political facts, Volpi creates unimpeachable narrative authority on such wide-ranging topics as Hungarian student movements, the Zairian French dialect, the corruption surrounding IMF funds in Africa, computer technology, mathematics, genetics, war strategy, investment banking, hippie communes in the US during the 60s, abortion procedures, depression, and more.  There seems to be nothing he doesn’t know and nothing he can’t find human tragedy and human comedy in.

This wide of a scope and this many movable parts would likely become a mess in a lesser novelist’s hands.  Volpi has, however, chosen a structure that organizes his materials without constricting them.  The novel is divided into a prelude and three acts, each act containing seven chapters.  The Prelude covers the Chernobyl incident and is set entirely in 1986.  Act I, which covers the years 1929-1985, is not chronologically ordered but rather swims around in time and plotlines, which seems unorganized but is not on closer inspection.  We learn the DNA, so to speak, of the novel in Act I, and the non-linear narrative lends itself to such a huge vision very well.  But had Volpi kept that non-linearity for the entire novel, readers would simply get lost in the wash of time and information.  And so, Act II, which covers the years 1985-1991, is ordered exactly chronologically, with each of its seven chapters covering a single year.  Act III covers 1991-2000 and returns to the non-linear structure, but by this point, we are oriented enough in the world of the novel for this not to be a problem.  And, as you can see, the overall structure of the novel takes us, in its roundabout way, from 1929 to 2000, thus giving the novel an overall sense of progression.

The two novels I was most reminded of while reading Season of Ash were Europe Central, by William T Vollmann, and 2666, by Roberto Bolaño.  Most novels would be reduced to, forgive the pun, ash by such a comparison, but Volpi’s novel not only stands up to these two masterpieces, I daresay it surpasses them.  It shows all the erudition, all the aesthetic sophistication, all the vision of a Europe Central or a 2666, yet it is considerably more readable.  In effect, it accomplishes all they do intellectually and emotionally while also being entertaining.  During the time I carried the book around with me, I was always digging it out my bag on a bus or train, just to get a few pages in; it kept me up past when I should have been asleep; it caused me to ignore invitations to parties (even ones I actually wanted to go to).

Okay…I’ll stop now with the praise.  For those who want a summary, kind of like the ones you get on the back of a book, here is the publisher’s summary from the back of the book:

Jorge Volpi’s Season of Ash puts a human face on earth-shaking events of the late twentieth century: the Chernobyl disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet communism and the rise of the Russian oligarchs, the cascading collapsing of developing economies, and the near-miraculous scientific advances of the Human Genome Project. A scientific investigation, a journalistic exposé, a detective novel, and a dark love story, Season of Ash is a thrilling exploration of greed and disillusionment, and a clear-eyed examination of the passions that rule our lives and make history.

So, there you have it.

In the limited space I have, I can’t go into a complete analysis of the translation, but suffice to say that Alfred MacAdam, who has translated many of Latin America’s literary giants (Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, and Cortázar), has made a virtuoso performance here (though I do wonder how the Spanish title, No será la Tierra, became Season of Ash—but oddities of title changes happen all the time in translation, so we’ll just have to overlook this).  Translating genius requires itself a certain genius.  He is already well-lauded for his work as a translator, but someone needs to give this man a medal for his current effort.  I hope Volpi’s international reputation coupled with MacAdam’s academic credentials make this book a real contender for the Nobel, which would end the Eurocentrism many (Americans) complain about the prize having had in recent years.  But more importantly, it would celebrate a massive and original talent.

-Okla Elliott

[The above review was originally published, in somewhat different form, in Inside Higher Education.]