In his 1999 novel In Search of Klingsor (translated into English in 2003), Mexican super-brain Jorge Volpi proved he was very good at an impressive number of things: crafting an elaborate table of contents; seamlessly inserting fictional characters into a vast historical landscape; and fusing mathematics, quantum theory, German mythology, and wartime espionage into a pulpy but unwaveringly intelligent hybrid.
Last year’s Season of Ash, which was published in Spanish in 2006, is just the second of Volpi’s nine novels to make the jump to English, and it contains many of the same elements that made Klingsor so engrossing. Instead of Nazi Germany collapsing, it’s the USSR. Instead of German myth, you have peripheral stories about the stock market and genetics. And instead of the atomic bomb for a grand central symbol, there’s the meltdown at Chernobyl.
This time, however, the disparate elements rarely gel into a satisfying whole. What once seemed effortless now sags and lumbers. Even if it isn’t technically the second one Volpi wrote, this novel has sophomore slump written all over it.
Troubles start early. Klingsor was able to keep its nonstop, egghead assault of information in check by anchoring it to a simple detective story: one man in pursuit of another. But in Season of Ash, we’re immediately thrown into the deep end with no fewer than three female protagonists, each of whom gets 20+ pages up front devoted to plunging into her tangled family history. The book opens on December 31, 2000, at the very end of the action. So from here, after each storyline introduces a mysterious (to us, anyway) corpse, we jump back nearly a century to try and slowly figure out how so many scattered ducks came to be in one tidy row.
Also consider that the story is narrated by one Yuri Chernishevsky, a dangerous (and transparently unreliable) writer who has murdered one of the three central women, a Hungarian scientist named Eva. Because we know right away that their relationship ends in blood, both of their storylines take on a particularly menacing undertone. Like John Shade and his deranged assassin in Pale Fire, tension comes from watching these far-flung characters gradually and inevitably crash into one another.
Come to think of it, Yuri is his own Charles Kinbote, too—a potentially psychotic intellectual whose testimony is nonetheless the only official record we have.
If this sounds arduous already, grab a helmet: we haven’t even gotten to the historical baggage yet. Volpi uses a massive amount of the 20th century as fodder for his story, running the gamut from Greenpeace to the fall of Russian Communism to the Human Genome Project. One character is, apropos of nothing, run over by an Israeli bulldozer in a Palestinian camp. It’s ostensibly done in service of the characters, but they’re far too broad to leave much of an impression, and time and again they get lost amidst the constant noise of their surroundings.
The book’s non-fiction elements are, in fact, engaging, and even occasionally gripping. Without an effective fictional glaze to hold everything in place, however, it’s like reading fragments from an extremely biased textbook.
If there’s a larger question being addressed here, it has to do with fate and free will. Are we defined by our DNA, or can we reinvent ourselves for the right cause? Are we all just tiny cogs in the unthinking machine called history, or can a single individual effect real change? Volpi seems to be suggesting the latter—too bad it’s the supposedly dynamic figures in the book who come across as the most indistinct and, well, cog-like.
The place where Season of Ash moves from confusion to outright irritation isn’t Volpi’s fault at all. Rather, it’s a crime co-perpetuated by his translator, Alfred Mac Adam, and his proofreaders at Open Letter. The book is filled with typos and punctuation boners, not to mention a slew of creaky, Frankenstein-like sentences, where standalone clauses are fused together with dashes, italics, and colons. This is a big reason the novel reads as unwieldy and chaotic as it does, and it only makes you pine all the more for the cool fluidity Kristina Cordero brought to her translation of Klingsor.
I could also have done without the endless repetition of epigraphs that Volpi ascribes to cities and politicians, which appear on nearly every page. You have Moscow, “city of wide avenues.” New York City is the “navel of the world,” and Berlin, “an island surrounded by cannibals.” Ditto for Brezhnev, “the cunning mummy,” all the way to Bill Clinton, “imperial seducer.”
The first time you see these epigraphs, they’re charming. By the fortieth time, however—and this is something of a common thread in Season of Ash—you just want to vigorously shake your copy of the book until all of the excess falls right out, gathering in a little pile of type at your feet.
Translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam. Open Letter, 413 pp., $15.95, paperback
(review originally appeared in Crab Town Magazine, June 12, 2010)