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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Season of Ash

Jorge Volpi

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Season of Ash

Title: Season of Ash
Author: Jorge Volpi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 405 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Season of Ash - US
No será la Tierra - US
Season of Ash - UK
Season of Ash - Canada
Le temps des cendres - France
Zeit der Asche - Deutschland
  • Spanish title: No será la Tierra
  • Translated by Alfred Mac Adam

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Our Assessment:

B : ambitious tale of the twentieth century, but relies too much on a few very limited figures

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 28/1/2008 Sébastien Le Fol
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 5/6/2009 Roman Luckscheiter
The Nation . 12/4/2010 Ben Ehrenreich
The NY Times Book Rev. D 13/12/2009 Tom Bissell
Die Zeit A 16/7/2009 Walter van Rossum

  From the Reviews:
  • "Le Temps des cendres est si dense et si haletant qu'on ne s'arrête pas sur sa traduction parfois déconcertante et ses quelques tics d'écriture récurrents -- les noms propres suivis d'une métaphore. Les pinailleurs diront que les héroïnes sont un peu stéréotypées. Question psychologie féminine, Volpi n'est pas (encore), il est vrai, aussi calé que Douglas Kennedy. Mais tout cela n'est que vétilles comparé à l'immense plaisir que l'on éprouve à la lecture de ce roman prodigieux." - Sébastien Le Fol, Le Figaro

  • "His protagonists, thin as they are, end up feeling like stage props in a mad, Where's Waldo? version of twentieth-century history. (...) It would be tempting to say that this is his point. Volpi clearly did not set out to write a novel of great psychological depth. At times, he seems eager to mock the very notion of three-dimensionality, as if the flatness of cliché were a more metaphysically honest aesthetic. (...) But Season of Ash does not hold up as satire. There is not enough at stake here: not enough doubt, not enough struggle, not enough warmth. Volpi is not contesting anything, and his glibness quickly gets old. The story he tells is less about his characters or whether we are slaves to our genes than about the second half of the twentieth century. His is an entirely conventional account" - Ben Ehrenreich, The Nation

  • "(A) book one very much wants to like. It is thoughtful, has epic sweep and contains many notionally appealing characters. What it is not: surprising, involving or at all interesting. What it lacks: any occasions of arresting language or appreciable drama. Another thing it lacks: quotation marks. It says something about Volpi’s strange achievement that quotation marks are frequently what the reader misses most. (...) On page after page of Season of Ash, novelistic eccentricity plows headlong into harebrained modernism. There are worse things to plow into, and they are here too" - Tom Bissell, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Der Schriftsteller Jorge Volpi (...) bietet eine erzählte Inventur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Sein Roman räumt auf mit den Ordnungsfantasien des vergangenen Jahrhunderts. Er erzählt vom Scheitern des Humanen, indem er das Überleben der Anpassungsfähigsten berichtet. (...) Die Kühnheit des Romans besteht darin, dass er zwei Ebenen zusammenführt, die unser Denken leichtfertig zu trennen pflegt -- und deshalb vielleicht so wenig der Komplexität des Konkreten gewachsen ist: die Ebene des Systems und die des Menschen." - Walter van Rossum, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Season of Ash is a sweeping novel of much of the end of the twentieth century -- with a bit of a Soviet/Russian slant, as much of it focusses on the collapse of the Soviet Union (and rise of oligarchical Russia). But it also reaches further, from the efforts of the IMF and World Bank in Mobuto's Zaire to the Human Genome Project.
       Three female characters (and the people in their lives) dominate the story, but there is also a narratorial presence of sorts -- who describes himself as:

the great hope of Slavic literature, the post-Communist Solzhenitsyn, the conscience of the new Russia, the admired and celebrated Yuri Mikhailovich Chernishevsky
       (Amusingly, Chernishevsky is the author of a novel called In Search of Kaminski -- echoing, of course, Volpi's own In Search of Klingsor.)
       But Chernishevsky is a somewhat reluctant narrator:
I hate the first-person singular and that insipid pronoun, I, that reveals my presence in these pages. How I would like not to be the narrator of this story, of this heap of stories -- of accidents -- and vanish without leaving a trace of my passage over the earth !
       And, in fact, he surfaces only rarely -- mainly when he interacts with some of the characters. For the most part, Season of Ash is omnisciently narrated -- which the first-person appearances undermine (since the omniscient narrator, identifying himself as someone who was not, in fact, an omniscient eyewitness to most of what he relates, reveals himself to be something of a fraud).
       A lot of history is related here: the novel opens with the 1986 disaster in Chernobyl, and among the set pieces are the death of Stalin, the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the sinking of the Greenpeace-vessel, the Rainbow Warrior, and any number of historical-political events; a seven-page appendix of 'Characters' includes dozens of real-life figures who have walk-on parts in the novel.
       The fictional trio Volpi build his novel around are: Irina, a Soviet-born scientist; Jennifer Wells, an American senator's daughter who works for the International Monetary Fund; and Eva Halász, a brilliant Hungarian-born computer-scientist. Among those in their orbit (and complicating matters) are Jennifer's husband, Jack, a would-be biotech entrepreneur; Jennifer's sister, the wild child Allison (and, eventually, her son, Jacob); Irina's lost-in-poetry and self-abusing daughter, Oksana; and Irina's dissident husband Arkady, who rides Boris Yeltsin's coattails to success in the new Russia.
       These are driven women. Jennifer works relentlessly in trying to prop up decrepit and corrupt economies, first in Zaire and eventually in the new Russia (and we all know how those interventions fared ...). Restless Eva flits from Marvin Minsky's artificial intelligence lab at MIT to the Human Genome Project. Only Irina's life is a bit more mundane -- but she has a talented but moody daughter to make up for it.
       There's a whole lot of history Volpi bites off here, and tries to chew. Some of this is riveting stuff, but in trying -- most of the time -- to bring in his lead characters (or, occasionally, others, including Allison, Oksana, and Jack) and show the personal side of history-in-the-making the book wobbles. Part of the problem is that he doesn't devote enough space to character-development. There is a bit of development to a few of them -- Arkady and Oksana, in particular -- but the depictions of the leads is often of soap-opera simplicity (and exaggeration). So, for example, Eva moans:
Why couldn't she be normal ? Why did her genes condemn her to be simultaneously luminous and obscure ?
       Work-obsessed Jennifer pops pills and flies into jealous rages, and even the heartbreak of her failure to have her own child comes across as little more than melodrama. Indeed, by comparison to some of the goings-on, precious Oksana's letters to Anna Akhmatova (Dear Anniushka, the girl writes) aren't entirely cringe-inducing.
       Volpi looks at the sordid business of IPOs and high finance around the world in numerous examples, at political wheeling and dealing, even at the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. There are many interesting and quite well-done bits, but it does not add up to all that much of a picture.
       Matters are not helped by the fact that Volpi is not always on very sound footing regarding his knowledge of the business world, as well as the questionable (and/or lazy) presentation of some facts and numbers. The claim that American president Ronald Reagan "multiplied the defense budget tenfold" is only among the most obvious howlers.
       Volpi does sustain interest, but more for the next big adventure -- which historical event will which character crash now ? -- than any larger picture. Eventually, however, his cardboard characters and the stilted descriptions of their actions -- "Eva was no fool: An expert in game theory, she'd foreseen her meeting with Jack's wife" -- and their simplistic overreactions (every other meeting seems to turn into a confrontation) is wearing. The payoff -- he knocks off quite a few of the characters at the end -- also doesn't provide nearly what the turn-of-the-millennium build-up would have promised: it's not a novel that deals with the "Y2K" worries, but ultimately winds up being a very Y2K novel: much ado about too little.
       Volpi is a decent storyteller, but an inconsistent -- and occasionally terribly hackneyed -- writer. He's produced an ambitious airport-thriller. It's readable, but doesn't come close to fulfilling its ambitions.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 August 2009

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Season of Ash: Reviews: Jorge Volpi: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Jorge Volpi was born in 1968.

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© 2009-2010 the complete review

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