This is the final volume of Volpi's loosely connected trilogy that started with In Search of Klingsor and continues with Le Fin de la Locura (not available in English translation). In each Volpi explores 20th century history.
For those who were around and reading newspapers from 1985 to the end of the century, but particularly in the late 1980s, this novel feels like a slightly expanded addition of year in review summaries: Challenger, French intelligence officers blowing up Greenpeace ship, Chernobyl, Berlin disco bomb killing Marines, San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic, etc. etc.
I'm sure Volpi read copious amounts in order to get these historical scenes correct, but one simply can't cover that much of the world and be spot on. His descriptions of San Francisco during that era contain several factual errors, as do descriptions of particular financial instruments and US Government agencies and programs. Minor in a book of this size, but annoying.
Into this newsreel are woven a few characters, each of whom is larger than life. Eva and Jennifer, brilliant, gorgeous, with hearts of ice. Allison, who incorporates every annoying characteristic of a clueless do-gooder; Jack, avaricious for absolutely everything that exists (particularly money and women); Oksana the doomed poet, and a few other two-dimensional characters. While all are stereotypes, there are gradations of evil, and the worst most despicable characters are exclusively from the United States or, like Arkady and the narrator, ruined after being tainted by that country and its evil capitalism. This is so much the novel written by a 1980s UNAM trained lawyer!
Throughout this novel Volpi employs the most annoying tick I have ever encountered in a novel...attaching a short description to either a person or place virtually every time that person/place is mentioned. Why? These occur hundreds of times, and grates enormously on the reader. Examples: Brezhnev, the cunning mummy; Reagan, sovereign of heaven; Yeltsin, of strong arms; Clinton, imperial seducer; Sakharov, maker of light. Want more? Washington, axis of the cosmos; Moscow, city of wide avenues; New York, navel of the world; Berlin, an island surrounded by cannibals. Each used endlessly.