Season of Ash, Jorge Volpi (trans. Alfred MacAdam). Open Letter. 464pp, $15.95.
Season of Ash, by the Mexican author Jorge Volpi, perhaps the best known member of the anti-Boom Crack Group, is truly an emphatic break from magical realism, the Boom, and the themes of Mexicanness that have filled the work of authors like Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Fernando Del Paso. It is not a novel of Mexico but a fictional history of the end of the cold war, a book that only sees Mexico as one of many developing countries devastated by Western help during the 1980s and 1990s. It is thus a series of rapid scenes that connect events as disparate as the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, the Challenger explosion, and the war in Chechnya, building a web of contemporary history—both personal and political—that succeeds as history, but not as a fiction.
Opening with a masterful description of the Chernobyl accident that sees the disaster as process and politics, a foretelling of what is to come, Season follows the events of the last twenty years of the cold war and ends in the fading glow of the Western victory right before the events of 2001. Volpi focuses on two regions of late-capitalist endeavor: the financial and the scientific. The financial leads him to the International Monetary Fund, following it from one failure to the next: first the kleptocracy of Zaire, then Mexico in the ’80s when the Latin American debt crisis crippled the country, and finally to the rapacious and corrupt shock therapy that was applied to Russia when it converted to capitalism in the ’90s. Through all this Volpi paints a picture of an IMF that is ineffectual and whose policies, no matter how well intentioned, serve only the rich and well connected. Not a particularly new criticism, but when connected with the other threads of the story it is a fitting description.
To finance Volpi adds modern science, describing in great detail what equipment and processes were necessary to decode the human genome and develop advances in artificial intelligence. Through the manipulations of genetic science he suggests a predetermination in human experience, at times almost explaining his characters in terms of their genetic makeup or chemical reactions. The novel is no longer a place for psychological reasonings but a place for scientific explanations.
Her unreserved admiration, her tenderness, the trust and faith Irina felt lessened a bit when their daughter was born. The creation of an authentic life, one independent of her bacteria and protozoans, took her by surprise, but from the moment the doctor informed her of her pregnancy a series of abstruse biochemical processes altered her personality. Science stopped interesting her, or only interested her if it helped explain how the cells multiplying in her womb were going to turn into a human being.
Throughout Season of Ash, Volpi weaves together these financial and the scientific strains, each pointing to a precariousness between individuals and the economic institutions and biological processes that influence—and may determine—their lives. For Volpi, history is a process of one greedy individual after another taking advantage of power to enrich herself and in the process destroy the country she is supposedly leading. This financial madness is bested only by the potentially catastrophic biological weapons program created by the former Soviet Union, whose power to destroy human life is second only to atomic bombs. As the novel closes Volpi will combine these ideas into a description of the Human Genome Project that is part Wall Street, part mid-’90s Russian capitalism, and part IMF. In the end, financial aid and scientific research alike are seen as nothing other than the creation of power.
To achieve the wide sweep of history and science, the novel follows three fictional women as they move through history, showing up amongst historical figures as diverse as Alan Turing and Boris Yeltsin. The women are: Jennifer Wells, an American who works for the IMF and the wife of the CEO of a company involved in the Human Genome Project; Irina Granina, a Russian biologist who is married to a dissident biological weapons scientist; and Eva Halász, a Hungarian immigrant to the United States who is a brilliant computer scientist and who will eventually work on the Human Genome Project with Jennifer’s husband. Each of the women is brilliant and determined, qualities which leave them incapable of long-lasting emotional attachment, as if the only options for intelligent women are impersonal relationships. Thus their private lives are a mix of affairs and disastrous relationships: Jennifer, who is cold and demanding, wants a child but cannot have one; Eva goes from one empty relationship to another, finding in them something almost mechanically biological; and Irina, who tirelessly supports her husband, suffers as her daughter withdraws from her. The women live troubled lives, lives of those in a prolonged war, and moments of happiness are few and far between.
Yet eclipsing these personal battles is the ever-present history. This constant reference to politics and science renders Volpi’s characters stiff, making them feel less like people than something required to create a novel. Moreover, these items are narrated in such sweeps of emotion and history that it is almost inconsequential that the characters felt something at all. Describing the Challenger disaster Volpi writes,
A light in the sky marked the end of the process: When it was 14 kilometers up and traveling at Mach 1.92, the space shuttle Challenger, pride of NASA, succumbed to an explosion—the hydrogen and oxygen atoms burned as soon as they touched. It disintegrated in a heartbeat. Allison’s eyes filled with tears, as if that light had torn her cornea; Jenifer envisioned the economic consequences of the catastrophe (the Russians would be happy); Eva tried to imagine the causes (she made a rapid calculation); and Wells [husband of Jennifer], as stingy as ever, only though about the losses the market would report the next day.
The details are precise, the explosion itself devoid of emotion—Volpi leaves the emotions to his characters, yet their thoughts are perfunctory, the words of a historian who needs to move the story on. The effect is that the only inner life a character can have is one that references some historical event. While characters do not exist without external stimuli, those in Season of Ash seem to respond only to historical events, not the commonplace, and so they become conduits to the real story, which is history.
The risk of using fictional characters to narrate history is that the characters can become little more than way markers between events. Season of Ash often succumbs to this problem, the most egregious example being Jennifer’s sister, Allison, who seems to be the embodiment of radical politics in the 1980s and ’90s. In the novel she joins Greenpeace and is on the Rainbow Warrior when it is sunk by the French. Later she joins Earth First and is eventually arrested by the FBI and sentenced to prison, though not before she has an affair with an FBI agent and becomes pregnant. Later she will go to Seattle for the WTO protests in 1999, and finally, like Rachel Corrie, die in Palestine protecting a home from an Israeli bulldozer. While a character made of a couple of those events is certainly not inconceivable, the piling on of events puts the character to the service of history and ultimately makes her unbelievable.
Volpi is at his best in describing the historical events themselves. For example, the description of the collapse of the Soviet Union shows a good eye for detail and historical action.
. . . an unexpected ally, the great Mstislav Rostropovich, on tour in Moscow, appeared at the White House. Instead of his cello, he too was carrying an AK-47. Half an hour later, Yeltsin appeared before the crowd, looking more and more tranquil and confident. He accused the coup leaders of having blood-stained hands—they were responsible for the massacres in the Baltic states and the Caucasus—and assumed control over the security forces in the Russian Federation.
With Rostropovich and the AK-47 he creates an atmosphere of excitement and uncertainty that simply stating Yeltsin appeared before the crowd would not have achieved. Throughout the book Volpi is able to bring back the era through precise and apt details. It is only when he tries to relate those to the personal that he has difficulty.
Season of Ash is an expansive work of modern history whose links create a vast, moving history of the political and scientific events of the end of the cold war, one that dispenses with the nation-state and attempts to uncover symbiotic relations between seemingly disparate interests. However, between the overload of events and the lack of character development, the novel ultimately reads like a list of events with characters attached. Season of Ash goes a long way toward demonstrating that the Latin American novel is much more than magical realism, but it stops short of being a successful work in itself.
Paul Doyle is a writer, teacher, and web developer based in Seattle. He writes about literature and film, especially Spanish and Arabic language literature, at By the Firelight. He was recently published in the literary journal Under Hwy 99.
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