Interview with Mark Smith-Soto


Smith-Soto's 2003 Collection

[The following interview and introductory remarks were originally published in Cold Mountain Review in 2006.]


Mark Smith-Soto is difficult to classify. He is a professor of Spanish and Latin American literature, a playwright, a poet, a translator, the editor of the International Poetry Review—and he fills each of these roles with style to burn. It would certainly be a lapse not to mention his Latino roots, but it would be an even greater one to define him by them. His work appears in Nimrod, Carolina Quarterly, The Sun, Poetry East, Quarterly West, Callaloo, Chattahoochee Review, Literary Review, Kenyon Review, among others. His books include the chapbooks Green Mango Collage and Shafts, and the full-length collections Our Lives Are Rivers (Florida University Press, 2003) and Any Second Now (MSR Press, 2006). His short plays have been published and produced locally in North Carolina and nationally.

The following interview took place in Greensboro, NC, early October, 2005.

Okla Elliott: You’ve taken an unorthodox path to becoming a poet—you earned a PhD in comparative literature at UC-Berkeley and went on to become a Spanish professor.  It was only later in life that you focused more on your creative writing.  What were the reasons for this choice, or was it even a conscious choice at all?

Mark Smith-Soto: I’ve thought of myself as a poet since I was a boy. In the Costa Rica of my childhood, poetry was an important part of any educated person’s life whether you were a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer. In my mother’s family, poetry was always highly regarded, and some of my earliest memories are of my mother or my uncle or my grandfather quoting a poem by Ruben Dario or Sor Juana during after dinner conversations or while on a drive to the beach. But if from my mother’s side of the family I inherited a love for literature, from my father the lawyer I inherited a strong practical streak, and very early on I realized that I was not the sort to starve for the sake of my art. By the time I entered as a freshman at the University of Maryland, I had made up my mind to become a teacher, very consciously having decided that it was a profession both congenial to my temperament and more likely than most to give me ample time to write. As it turned out, I was only partially right.  Scholarly endeavors ended up requiring much more of my creative energy than I anticipated, and while I never stopped writing poetry altogether, it definitely took a back seat to the business of getting my academic career on its way. I should add that from early on I found it a lot easier to publish articles and books on other people’s writing than to discover anyone willing to print my own poetry. Had it been otherwise, I might have gathered the courage to dedicate myself more fully to my vocation as a poet. Of course, it may have been for the best that my early poetry did not get accepted for publication. Looking at it now, I feel that most of it was imitative and immature, and I am glad I was not encouraged to continue in that same vein.

OE: How has having studied Latin American literature changed your creative sensibilities?

MS: The first poetry I learned to love and to recite as a child in Costa Rica was in Spanish, of course, writers such as Jorge Manrique, Sor Juana, Ruben Dario and Gabriela Mistral who were often quoted at family reunions, parties, and at dinner-time conversations. But there was no formal study involved, I just absorbed the rhythms and music of poems I found beautiful often without fully understanding them. I could not begin to say how profoundly this early experience shaped my creative sensibilities. I would not be surprised if everything I write or even think might not be traceable back somehow to that primal apprenticeship.  When it comes to the actual study of poetry and its influence of my work, I should say that although I continued to write for a while in Spanish when I first came to the U.S., I very quickly fell in love with the English language, which I learned in part by memorizing poems by Poe, Frost, Wordsworth, Yeats and many others. In high school and then as an English major at the University of Maryland, it was primarily through the reading and analysis of English-language writers that I fully began to understand what poetry was about. Later, as a graduate student, I came to know and love Neruda, Lorca, Storni, and many other Spanish-language poets who I can only hope have left their mark on my work—as they no doubt have on my soul.

There is one aspect of my work which no doubt bears the mark of poets such as Neruda and Vallejo who were unabashedly political in their writings. With occasional exceptions, modern poets in English have pretty much shied away from the expression of social and political concerns, as if, in the fashion of Oscar Wilde’s butler in The Importance of Being Earnest, they did not think it polite to listen to the sounds of sorrow all around. While it is not typical of my work in general, I have written through the years a number of poems with a specifically socio-political intention, and I might well have written more had I not found it nearly impossible to publish them in literary journals. Luckily, I discovered an outlet for some of those pieces in The Sun, a thoughtful rather than academic magazine which does not consider an ethical sympathy in a writer to be, and this is Wilde once again, an unpardonable mannerism of style.

OE: Some of your poetry seems very informed by your Latin American heritage, but much of it shows none of that influence at all.  Your work doesn’t seem defined by your ethnicity.  In what ways does your personal heritage enter into your work?

MS: It took me a long time to realize I was a Latino writer.  Although in Costa Rica people use both the father’s and mother’s family name, when we came to the U.S. in 1958 my American father simply dropped the Soto from his children’s surname. Because my skin is not particularly dark and because I spoke English without much of an accent, I soon became accustomed to being seen, and seeing myself, as just another Smith.

My family’s economic position was relatively comfortable, and I did not have to grow up suffering the kind of privations, oppression and prejudice that informs the work of many Hispanic poets in this country. Unlike Luis Rodriguez, I don’t bear the scars of inner city gang life, and unlike Gary Soto or Tino Villanueva, I am not a product of the Southwest that often has oppressed and exploited its Chicano and Mexican populations. The Nuyorican experience is as foreign and exotic to me as any other aspect of Manhattan.

Still, as an American kid who lived with a Spanish speaking mother in the house and who felt close ties to the family I left behind in Costa Rica, I was never in danger of losing sight of my Hispanic background even if that awareness never became politicized for me. In fact, with one or two exceptions, all the poetry I have written with a Hispanic theme is not so much “Latino” as it is familial, that is, it is personal rather than intentionally political.  I do believe, of course, as the cliché goes, that the personal is political, and in so far as the poetry I’ve published inspired by my Costa Rican experience might bring to the consciousness of my readers the fact that they are holding in their hands the work of a hyphenated American of the Hispanic sort, in that sense, I am pleased to be perfectly political.

OE: You have also recently begun writing short plays.  What is the connection between verse and short dramatic pieces?

MS: The language of poets, to borrow a phrase from Yeats, is a dialogue between self and soul, and their poetry offers us a chance to eavesdrop on this vital, essential conversation.  But there is an aspect of myself as a human being that only comes into its own when I am in the company of others, when I am in conversation, in dance, in laughter with other people. Writing plays satisfies a need I feel to delve into the dynamics that human interaction.  I love the way we humans give ourselves away every time we open our mouths, the way our choice of words, the way we scratch our heads, the long or short steps we take across a living room all can signal the state and nature of our souls, which we imagine we keep deeply hidden.  Of course, poetry and playwriting can go hand in hand, and when they merge seamlessly as they do in Shakespeare, the most obvious example, they can attain heights of expressivity that can only be called sublime.  It is commonplace to say that plays in verse are now anachronistic and have no chance of being produced, but I have written one short verse play which won a prize in a national contest and will soon be published.  This has been very encouraging, and I expect to try it again before too long.

OE: What specifically about the 10-minute play excites you?

MS: It has been a good way for a beginner like myself to break into writing for the theatre because the initial investment of time and energy and soul are not so great as to be daunting. Similar to trying your teeth on a few short stories before committing to taking on a novel.  It brings home to you how brevity really is the soul of wit.  “Less is more” can be a difficult lesson for writers who are accustomed to lean heavily on language to carry our meaning.  A mere ten minutes of stage time to work with teaches you quickly that what can be well expressed is often less important than what can be left unsaid, and that a well-placed gesture can suggest a story beyond words.

One important advantage to the very short play– your chances of actually getting your work produced are much greater than with a full-length piece.  I have had six put on locally myself.  More and more community theatres have found that an offering of six or seven ten-minute plays can be very appealing, especially to younger audiences with ever shorter attention spans.  Here in Greensboro, the Playwrights’ Forum presents two such evenings each year, always to very respectable houses.

And, finally, well, it’s liberating to write in a form that’s new, whose parameters, requirements and limitations are still in the process of being discovered.  I mean, the ten-minute play as a subgenre has only been around for a few years, so, in a sense, those of us practicing it now are in on the ground floor, shaping it, determining what its nature will be.  It’s a relief for a poet and would-be playwright not to have to labor under Shakespeare’s shadow for a change!

OE: Do you think you’ll ever write fiction?

MS: As for fiction, well, I have been an insatiable reader of fiction since my childhood, and am seldom without a novel in my hand, whether it be a P.D. James or an Elizabeth George, or a Dickens novel I finally have gotten to, or the latest by Kazuo Ishiguro.  But much as I regret to say so, I have no talent for narrative whatsoever.  My few attempts have taught me that to create a fictional world—to evoke the minutiae of every day life in an exciting and engaging way so as to provide the necessary context in which character can be explored and understood—requires a kind of creative patience which has been denied me.  So no, I think the world is pretty safe from any attempts at fiction from my pen.

OE: Your newest collection of poetry, Any Second Now, due out in spring 2006, contains many political poems. Would you discuss the new collection and your choice to include so many political poems?

MS: Publishing my first full-length book of poetry took me some thirty years, and I had almost despaired of getting a second collection accepted when Main Street Rag Publishers fished me out from among the finalists in their annual poetry competition and offered me a contract this year.  In preparing that manuscript, I got together every poem I had ever published in literary magazines and every poem I felt deserved to have been published by someone somewhere and then looked to see if I could find a way of giving the collection a sense of overarching unity.  I couldn’t.  The problem was that I have many voices in my head, almost distinct poetical personalities, if you will, in the fashion of Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese modernist who went so far as to publish his work under several different aliases.  There was no way, ultimately, that I could impose some artificial thematic superstructure on those poems.  So what I decided to do was to divide the manuscript into four sections, each one representing one of the principal “voices” in which my poetry tends to come to me, and hope that my readers will intuit how these disparate parts conspire in the creation of a coherent whole.  The title, Any Second Now, suggested itself as possibly the one preoccupation that underlies almost everything I write, and that is a sense of urgency about the element of time in which our mortal selves unwind.

As for the overtly political themes in the section I titled “President In My Heart” I can only say that if, as the saying goes, the personal is political, then what interests me above all in these poems is rather how the political is personal—that is, how am I, how is my own humanity—complicit in the political and social realities which I decry?  Of course, I have often through the years enjoyed writing direct political attacks in limericks on figures like George W. Bush and his ilk, but I do not consider them serious poetry because writing them did not teach me anything about myself.

OE: With Nation Books’ 2003 publication of Poets Against the War, which included such luminaries as Marvin Bell, Rita Dove, and W.S. Merwin, and which met with great success, do you feel that there may be a place again for the political in the literary?

MS: Yes, of course, there always has been and always will be a place for the political in the literary.  That fact has not always been recognized, but it is undeniable.  Even in the U.S., where we so often hear the complaint that poets live at a remove from the sorrows of the everyday life around them, writers through the years from Whitman to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Robert Bly to Carolyn Forché, among many others, have penned powerful work with socio-political concerns.

But I am not bothered that in this country we have few poets of the first rank who have written overtly political poetry.  You have to consider how the pragmatic, mercantile and utilitarian forces here oppose a crushing weight against the pursuit of spiritual values that writing poetry represents.  For a person in the United States to embrace the identity of a poet—which miraculously still happens!—rather than that of a football player or an Exxon executive or a lawyer or a Bible salesman is to take a political stand.  In such a context as ours, to write a few lines of poetry about a rose should be understood as an intrinsically subversive act.

OE: You recently received an NEA grant.  What plans do you have for the near future?

MS: Only one: I want to write!

FRIDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: Jose Emilio Pacheco

High Treason

by Jose Emilio Pacheco

I do not love my country. Its abstract lustre
is beyond my grasp.
But (although it sounds bad) I would give my life
for ten places in it, for certain people,
seaports, pinewoods, fortresses,
a run-down city, gray, grotesque,
various figures from its history
mountains
(and three or four rivers).

Translated from Spanish by Alastair Reid

Alta traición

No amo mi Patria. Su fulgor abstracto
es inasible.
Pero (aunque suene mal) daría la vida
por diez lugares suyos, cierta gente,
puertos, bosques de pinos, fortalezas,
una ciudad deshecha, gris, monstruosa,
varias figuras de su historia,
montañas
(y tres o cuatro ríos).

Jose Emilio Pacheco, born in Mexico City in 1939, is an award-winning poet, essayist, translator, novelist, and teacher.

Notes on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666: Part 1


BOOK REVIEW by Christopher Higgs

(All references are to the First Picador Edition, 2009, trans. Natasha Wimmer)

[Note: This massive book is separated into five parts—not chapters, because, as I understand it, Bolaño intended for them to be published individually as separate books.  My plan is to unpack one part per month here at AIOTB, starting right now.  You will notice that my presentation style is probably more free-form than a traditional review or critique, but will hopefully incorporate both of those elements.]

Part I: The Part About The Critics

Let me begin by establishing some context.  First, I must admit I have until now avoided Bolaño’s work with ferocity because I am skeptical of trends—and Roberto Bolaño is the epitome of literary trendiness.  Critic after critic hails him as the savior of literature.  One looks left, one looks right, and all one sees is a wash of superlatives: brilliant, genius, spellbinder, etc.

“Oh my god, have you read The Savage Detectives?  Oh my god it’s the greatest book ever written!”

“Oh my god, have you read 2666?  Oh my god, it’s the greatest book ever written!”

In fact, to my knowledge no critic has ever said anything negative about Bolaño’s work in any venue, be it digital, print, or conversation.  I’m only halfway kidding, but even so I find the perceived level of unanimity seriously uncomfortable.  It puts me in the position of approaching his work ready – no, eager! – to be the boy who shouts “The emperor has no clothes!”  Obviously, this isn’t the ideal vantage point from which to begin reading a book.

Couple that with my personal affinity for what Gary Lutz calls “a page hugger” versus “a page turner,” which I take to mean a novel that values sentences over stories, and all of a sudden the cards begin to stack up against me reacting positively to 2666.  Yes, I am an aesthete.  (It always feels good to get that out in the open asap so there’ll be no misunderstandings.)  I read for the pleasure of words and word arrangement rather than the pleasure of a good yarn or believable characters.  I read for beauty and spectacle rather than meanings and messages.

With that said, my initial response to 2666 was negative because it seems to work from the opposite assumption: it seems more concerned with telling a story about characters than celebrating language for the sake of language.  By contrast, to offer an example of what I mean, I’ll use Joyce’s Ulysses—which seems appropriate given the comparisons that adorn the back cover of my edition—where the privileging of words, word play, and word arrangements trumps the conveyance of the story.  You can think of it in terms of Jakobsonian dominance: in 2666, story is dominant, while in Ulysses, language is dominant.  For my time and money, I always tend to enjoy a text that is language dominant rather than story dominant.  (For the record, I fully understand the common argument against my position: a work of literature should strive for a balance of both aspects—a position arising from the tenants of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—but I humbly disagree with it.)

Thus, I found the first part of 2666 challenging.  Not because of complexity—there is very little, until the final sixty-some pages—but because of the demand it made on my patience.  With less than five noticeable exceptions, boredom was the predominate emotion I felt as I worked my way through the first hundred pages.  Boredom and longing for something interesting to appear.

What you get in those opening hundred pages is the mundane tale of four academics whose field of focus is the work of an obscure German author named Benno von Archimboldi.  Three of the academics are men and the fourth is a woman with whom all three of the men copulate at one time or another.  And that’s pretty much it for the first hundred pages: the boring lives and sexual tensions of four academics.

The exceptions to the banality are:

*This passage on page 9, which is a poetic anomaly – by which I mean that the majority of the first 100 pages fails to sustain this level of defamiliarized imagery:

“It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like a grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their comprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.”

*An engaging five-page sentence that begins at the top of page 18 and ends at the bottom of page 22, which rivals any of those beautiful long sentences in Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch in terms of twists and turns, breath, propulsion, and strangeness.

*This passage on page 40-41, which reminds me of the mathematical, categorical, OCD-like tendencies found in Samuel Beckett’s Watt:

“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word ‘fate’ used ten times and the word ‘friendship’ twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word ‘Paris’ was said seven times, ‘Madrid’, eight. The word ‘love’ was spoken twice, once by each man. The word ‘horror’ was spoken six times and the word ‘happiness’ once (by Espinoza). The word ‘solution’ was said twelve times. The word ‘solipsism’ once (Pelletier). The word ‘euphemism’ ten times. The word ‘category’, in the singular and plural, nine times. The word ‘structuralism’ once (Pelletier). The term ‘American literature’ three times. The word ‘dinner’ or ‘eating’ or ‘breakfast’ or ‘sandwich’ nineteen times. The word ‘eyes’ or ‘hands’ or ‘hair’ fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly.”

*Also, there’s an artist who chops off his own hand as a conceptual art performance, which I thought was an interesting and provocative idea.

Aside from those four instances, and maybe the insane scene where two of the critics beat the living shit out of a Pakistani taxi driver (pg. 74), the first hundred pages dragged its slow knuckles across my eyes.

But just as I was on the verge of giving up something very cool happened.  Around page 100 three of the critics go to Mexico in search of Archimboldi, which turns everything around and suddenly the book began to sink its teeth into me.  All of a sudden the sentences began to get stranger.  All of a sudden mystery gets introduced.  Where is Archimboldi?  Who is Archimboldi, really?  Who is Amalfitano?  And what is with the overlap between dreams and reality?

Yes, dreams play a significant role throughout part one, but they seem to really begin to ramp up once the characters get to Mexico.  In fact, I’d argue that dreams threaten to completely replace waking life by the end of this section. (see page 135: “After that moment, reality for Pelletier and Espinoza seemed to tear like paper scenery, and when it was stripped away it revealed what was behind it: a smoking landscape, as if someone, an angel, maybe, was tending hundreds of barbeque pits for a crowd of invisible beings.” – now that’s a freaking badass sentence!)  Characters begin to lose their individuality, seem to become other than themselves, begin to make decisions that are (excuse the pun) uncharacteristic.  I even started to wonder if two of the critics were actually just one person all along, a la Tyler Durden.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder what I would notice about dreams if I were to go back and reread part one?

My hands-down favorite bit in part one is the crazy story Amalfitano tells the three critics from page 120-123, which is maybe worth all the time and energy I put into reading those dull preceding pages.  Won’t spoil it for you, but will share the reaction it engenders from the critics, which pretty much sums up why I loved it:

“I don’t understand a word you’ve said,” said Norton.

“Really I’ve just been talking nonsense,” said Amalfitano.

Brilliant!

So for me, the final sixty pages of 2666 save it from a huge ugly thumbs down.  On one level, I find this terribly annoying: the fact that I had to trudge through 100 pages to get to something interesting.  On the other hand, I recognize my role as an impatient reader: some folks might be willing to give a book 100 pages before giving up on it.  Not me.  In my most generous mood I give a book one page.  If I am not hooked by the end of that page then I set the book aside.  More often than not, I only give a book one paragraph.  By that measure, I would have certainly given up on 2666, which would have been too bad because now that I’m about to enter Part Two: The Part About Amalfitano, it’s finally starting to get good.


Christopher Higgs curates the online arts journal Bright Stupid Confetti, and is a proud member of The Marvin K. Mooney Society.  He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in literature and critical theory at Florida State University, where his research involves theorizing a rhizomatic approach to understanding transnational/transhistorical avant-garde literature.

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.]