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Season of Ash by Jorge Volpi Escalante

Season of Ash (2006)

by Jorge Volpi Escalante

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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 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Jorge Volpi's "Season of Ash" is a difficult book to review. While reading, I kept trying to push it into any of a number of simply shaped categories. For long stretches, the novel feels strongly like straight historical fiction. It follows the paths of three women, spread across the globe, through many of the major events of the 20th century. The book then flips into murder mystery; although "mystery" is too strong a word as from the earliest chapters we know both victim and culprit; perhaps murder procedural would be a more apt term. Finally, all these events are couched in a not too clear metafictional universe where the murderer, and sometimes narrator, authors a book titled "Season of Ash" that also recounts many of the events of the book. Which leaves the reader to ask: just how much of Jorge Volpi's "Season of Ash" is really the narrator-murderer's "Season of Ash."
Although this book is composed of several styles it uses a well established story telling method as its core structural device. I am not sure if there is a name for the genre but one name for the tradition might be "Epic Historical Fiction." In this genre the writer places a small group of characters lives head long the paths of a number of either true historical events of near simulacra. Upton Sinclair's "Oil" is the more recent entry in this genre I recall reading. In the case of "Season of Ash" Volpi has chosen to place his characters in later two thirds of the 20th century.
The story is contains three major plot lines, following the lives of Jennifer Moore financial wizard of the International Monetary Fund, Irina Nikolayevna Sudayeva Russian biologist, and Eva Halasz Hungarian child prodigy turned computer scientist. Each woman, or a close relation, plays a role or is directly impacted by many of the major events of the 20th century: from the market crash in October of 1929 to the fall of the berlin wall to the mapping of the human genome. I found when the novel focused on recounting these historical event the writing was at its clearest. The many varied events are recounted with extensive details that create a vivid easily accessible picture. Sometimes Volpi shares the events details through direct recounting of sequences of events and sometimes through fictionalized eyewitness encounters. As a historical primer the book is successful; it leaves the reader intrigued and wanting to learn more about the source material of these striking events.
Where the book fails, for me, is as murder "mystery." I didn't find myself compelled by the murder story. The interlacing of the murder story with the historical story felt was more distracting then engaging. One interesting aspect of this secondary story was that while the narrator-murderer is physically responsible for the death of one woman he also had a strong connection with two other women who die and plays a role in the ruin of the only two men he is shown to meet. The reader can't help but wonder if Volpi wants you to see a greater connection between the destruction of these lives and the underlying character of the murderer. The murderer is a poet, historian, and political activist all wrapped around a not too hidden roiling temper and all who encounter it end up dead or ruined.
The relationship of the narrator to the rest of the story is further confused because, as we are told early on, the narrator's sole remaining purpose is to compose a memoir titled "Season of Ash." We are told that this novel recounts his version of the events leading to the murder. We discover much later in the book that this book is also composed of notes the murderer received from the daughter of Irina Sudayeva. We also know that the narrator-murderer wrote in an earlier book a character whose life closely resembled that of Irina's Husband. Addtionally, the narrator-murderer shows up as a character in the life of Allison Moore, sister to the above mentioned Jennifer Moore, and interacted with Jennifer Moore's husband. Finally, there is poor Eva, the victim, who had many encounters with the narrator-murderer. All this suggests that our narrator-murderer had sufficient information and ties to other actors that he might better be called the narrator-murderer-author.
This metafictional aspect of the story is by far the most intriguing part of the read. Unfortunately, I have yet to parse Volpi's intentions in having a character who is the author of his book. Incorporating the metafictional dimension seems a strange a choice in a book which is principally a retelling of historical events. Most of the time while reading the book it feel like a simple recounting of interesting historical events; but then the narrator's voice starts to pour in and cover the story with a film of distrust. Perhaps the author is saying something about contemporary desires to relive the near past and the destructive nature of too much self-reflection. Perhaps he is saying something about the long standing of problem of history being told by the victors. Perhaps it was just a creative way to tell a story. Whatever the purpose I found it added an intriguing layer to an already enjoyable book that will leave the careful reader questioning exactly whose words she is encountering. ( )
  mposey82 | Dec 29, 2009 |
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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