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Season of Ash Paperback – 20 Oct 2009

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
A complex and engaging story 8 Jan. 2010
By Matthew Posey - Published on
Format: Paperback
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.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Say after me..Capitalism is Bad 5 Feb. 2012
By las cosas - Published on
Format: Paperback
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.
This is not a murder novel 22 Aug. 2013
By Lotusland Lady - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Season of Ash is a very dense novel. The language is poetic and precise and it cannot be read quickly or comfortably. I liked it tremendously. I put it down regularly to look up a name, a noun, a reference because each word matters and each metaphor is important. For example, the word chimera is used often. I learn this has both a mythological definition ( being made up of three different animals) and a genetic definition ( a being composed of two different kinds of DNA) and both, I believe, apply to this story.
Volpi's incorporation of the lives of his fictional characters into the history of the past 75 years forced me as his reader to examine the inevitable consequences of greed, power, alienation, and the limitations of love in the human animal. This is not a happy book, most of his characters are born into pain and live their lives in faint hope, separation and loss, but the story is absorbing and demands examination.
The murder (if that is what it is) is almost irrelevant, and is much less affecting than the death of the daughter, introduced at the beginning and then expanded on at the end. There is nothing hopeful in this novel, the characters are flawed and largely unlikable, but they are also sympathetic and that is perhaps the book's strength. If we can understand them, perhaps we can forgive ourselves.
I found this a brilliant book but not an easy one to read.
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