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Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi Escalante

Season of Ash (2006)

by Jorge Volpi Escalante

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I read this book because it was on an NPR list of best foreign fiction of 2009. The author is Mexican and founded a literary group that is attempting to move Mexican literature beyond the bounds of magical realism. This book follows several characters: mostly scientists, economists, and business types with a few dissidents and poets thrown in the mix. It takes place almost everywhere: Moscow, Zaire, the West Bank, Germany, Boston...to name a few. The characters seem to become somehow involved in every major event in the late 20th century. The book talks about Chernobyl, Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the WTO protests in Seattle, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mapping of the human genome, etc. (A reviewer from the New York Times aptly wrote the book could have been called "We Didn't Start the Fire- A Novel.")

Overall, it was just too much. It had a lot of potential, but there was just too much going on. None of the characters were all that likable or memorable, which is odd, given the amount of time dedicated to characterization. Some of the historical context was interesting, but it never seemed fully developed. One of the characters works for the IMF, first in Mobutu's Zaire and then in post-communist Russia. The process of trying to privatize Russia's economy after years of communism is fascinating, but it was too complicated for me to sort through in the book.

I really wanted to like this book, but sadly, it just never pannned out. ( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this book from LibraryThing, as part of their Early Reviewer program. It's taken me a while to get to it, as I've gotten distracted by reading other things (and by doing things other than reading).

So, what is this book about? It's going to be hard for me to describe. The story stretches from the late 1920's to the early 2000's, following (primarily) three women: Jennifer Moore, uptight economist working for the IMF; Eva Halasz, free-spirited computer scientist, jumping from man to man, trying to keep her outsized intelligence employed; and Irina Granin, a Soviet biologist, living through the fall of the Soviet Union. We follow each woman independently for most of the book, but the Volpi brings all three women's storylines together at the end. Ostensibly written by Yuri Chernishevsky, after he murders Eva Halasz (this is disclosed VERY early in the book, so I'm not giving anything away), the book takes readers from the Chernobyl disaster through the fall of Communism and the rise of capitalism in the former USSR, and also works in the development of the Human Genome Project, as well. Volpi name drops Russian and American politicians and biologists throughout.

I mostly enjoyed the book while I was reading it, but I found it hard to go back to, once I'd put it down. I mostly went back to it to discover Yuri's reasons for murdering Eva, but when the revelation came, it was somewhat anticlimactic. I think it would have helped to have been better versed in Russian history (especially the history of the late 20th century), but I did learn a lot from what I read in the novel. I have a much better understanding of the meaning of perestroika and glasnost and how the fall of the Soviet Union was orchestrated than I ever did in my school days (when I was living through it!). Part of my issue with the novel was that there wasn't enough action. I like plot-based books and this was much more of a character study...not least the character of the swiftly changing USSR. I think I just needed more action to keep me involved.

I would have to give this novel three out of five Whatevers. Good, but not excellent. There were a lot of typos. I don't believe my copy was an ARC, so I don't know how to explain that, and it really bugged me. Recommended for those who like slow-moving, character-based books; for those who have an interest in either Russian history of the late 20th century, or the development of the Human Genome Project; or for those who don't mind a more literary style of writing. (I did like how all major politicians and large cities were almost always modified by a particular phrase. For example, Moscow was "city of wide avenues" and Yeltsin "of strong arms.") ( )
1 vote Lexi2008 | Apr 22, 2012 |
Jorge Volpi (1968-) is one of the leading voices in contemporary Mexican literature, having written several novels that have received critical acclaim within and outside of Mexico. His most famous novel is In Search of Klingsor (En busca de Klingsor), the winner of two major international literary awards, which "explores the nexus between science and human nature and how they shaped the world in the aftermath of World War II." He is one of the founders of the 'Crack' literary movement in Mexico, whose members seek to revisit the roots of the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s, and go beyond magical realism and other standard forms which have characterized much of the literature from the region in recent years.

Season of Ash (No será la tierra) was originally published in Spanish in 2006. It was translated into English by Alfred Mac Adam and published by Open Letter Books in 2009.

The novel, which is separated into three acts, begins at the nuclear plant in Chernobyl in 1986, on the day of the disastrous accident. The first act follows this prelude, and we are introduced to the three main characters: Irina, a Soviet biologist; Eva, a Hungarian computer scientist; and Jennifer, an American economist. Each mourn the death of someone dear to them on the next to last day of 2000. The narrator then introduces himself, and tells us that these apparently disparate stories and characters are linked through him, and that one of them will reach a tragic end.

Volpi describes the lives of the main characters and those close to them, through historical fictional accounts of the Soviet Union and Russia from Stalin to Yeltsin, the 1929 stock market crash, financial crises in Zaire, Mexico and Russia, human rights movements in the US and abroad, and other topics. Their stories are told separately but chronologically, in a manner that was very readable, unique and interesting to me.

In the final act, Volpi links the lives of the characters through the narrator, and the novel is transformed into a detective story and a murder mystery. Unfortunately this was where [Season of Ash ]became a major disappointment to me, as the fusion was not a successful one, and the novel ended abruptly and incompletely. ( )
2 vote kidzdoc | May 11, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Season of Ash is a book mixed of simplicity and complexity. The stories are simple; Chernobyl, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Market Crash all told around women who were indirectly involved. The book becomes complex as it moves deeper and the stories become a story. Either way the story and stories are part historical fiction part mystery, part memoir and part other. A riveting read full of believable and intriguing characters.
  kurtabeard | Jan 27, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A very interesting compilation of important events from the twentieth century, including Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall, as told through the experiences of three women with three very different perspectives. There was a lot interesting history combined with an intriguing story. I loved the way the lives of the different women connected to create a complete vision of several very important historic events.
  Jessica_Brianne | Jan 19, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
This, in broad outline, is the world of Season of Ash, published in Spanish in 2006 as the final installment of the historical trilogy that began with In Search of Klingsor, and just released here in a translation by Alfred Mac Adam for the generally excellent press Open Letter. The failure of communism, the collapse of the Soviet Union--and with it that strange and stubborn ghost, ideology--is apparently so crucial to Volpi that it must be marked repeatedly. The novel begins with a brief dramatization of the Chernobyl disaster, the USSR's first symbolic death. The giant concrete sarcophagus in which the nuclear plant's reactor is eventually sealed off, Volpi writes, is the "final legacy of communism." But it lives on to die again three years later, when the last Russian soldier retreats from Afghanistan, and again in 1990, when the first McDonald's opens in Moscow and one character announces to his wife, "We are witnessing the end of the planned economy and therefore of the Soviet Union itself!" Then one last time on New Year's Eve 1991, just after the Supreme Soviet really has dissolved itself, the couple's brooding daughter writes a letter to Anna Akhmatova: "Today is the last day of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, the last day of Communism, the last day of our era." A few pages later, in case the corpse wasn't dead enough, Volpi incinerates it. His narrator opines that--like Latin American literature--"The worst thing about the Soviet Union is that it had never existed."
added by kidzdoc | editThe Nation, Ben Ehrenreich (Apr 12, 2010)
“Season of Ash” is about nearly everything that has happened over the last 50 years: Chernobyl, the collapse of Communism, the rise of biogenetics and environmental terrorism. Other, equally significant events make their way into the narrative as well. Hello, Challenger explosion. Greetings, AIDS. Salaam, Soviet war in Afghanistan. Wassup, W.T.O. riots. Volpi is a leading member of the so-called Crack group, an upstart literary movement of Mexican writers understandably bored by the devices and expectations of magical realism. Until one actually reads it, “Season of Ash” looks poised to become a foundational repudiation of everything one has come to expect from the literature of the Spanish-speaking Americas. From his novel’s first sentence (“Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov”), Volpi attempts to be the first great Russian novelist who is not actually Russian. Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.”
For too long, the word nerd has been misused to describe the videogame-playing and Buffy-obsessed men and women of this world. That's geek culture. For a proper definition, look no further than Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash, which, in its depth (it spans the years 1929 to 2000), breadth (it crisscrosses from Zaire to Berlin and Pittsburgh to Siberia) and bookish preoccupations (scientific advancements in genetic research, artificial life and biochemistry), is unapologetically nerdy. But it's quality airplane reading, too.

Volpi's sweeping story, about three brilliant women and the way their lives connect to the sociological chaos of the 20th century, is told from the perspective of a man who, it's revealed early on, has murdered one of them. Volpi is the author of the internationally best-selling In Search of Klingsor, and he writes like a young Michael Crichton, but with twice the IQ and a historical perspective. Nerd.
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.
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For them I have woven this vast shroud
Out of the sad words I heard from them.

—Anna Akhmatova, Requiem

There are women born in a moist earth.
Each of their steps is a sonorous sob,
and their vocation is to accompany the dead
and to be the first to greet those who come back to life.

—Osip Mandelstam, Voronzeh Notebooks
For my ornithologist.
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Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov.
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Follow the earth-shaking events of the late twentieth century through the lives of three women: Irina, a Soviet biologist, Eva, a Hungarian computer scientist, and Jennifer, an American economist.

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