'Ash' is Dust on the Page

'Season of Ash' By Jorge Volpi (Open Letter)

“Part detective novel, part scientific investigation, and part journalistic exposé with a dark, destructive love story at its center.” It’s a tough marketing description for even the finest author to live up to. Jorge Volpi’s “Season of Ash,” translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam, does indeed offer a unique scientific analysis of human behavior and a character list ample enough to facilitate countless love stories. But while Volpi’s literary conceit is ambitious enough, and his ideas occasionally intriguing, his hackneyed prose and contrived analysis diminish his message.

Volpi’s account of the shocking socio-political events of the late 20th century percolates through the narrative of Yuri Chernishevsky, whose enigmatic past is gradually unmasked, revealing uncanny links to other characters halfway around the world. Yuri is the common thread among three women who form the epicenter of Volpi’s overly complex tale, but its intricacies only flimsily conceal its lack of narrative integrity. While each woman’s personal travails are intertwined with major world events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the undertaking of the Human Genome Project, nothing except the basic chronology of their situations and Yuri’s periodic involvement connects them. Volpi gives us a preview of a formidable Soviet biologist who loses her loved ones, first to the cruelty of communism and then to the charm of capitalism; a conflicted IMF negotiator who “comport[s] herself like a government bond”; and a dangerously dispassionate Hungarian computer scientist who attracts men easily and abandons them even more effortlessly. All three face the challenge of watching others be engulfed by impulsive greed, betrayed by the very emotional defenses they once sought to construct. The novel’s failure, however, to carefully develop these individual subplots results in a storyline wholly devoid of momentum.

Volpi comingles his characters with historical figures that invariably outshine the author’s creations. We are drawn more to Volpi’s sarcastic spin on Stalin and other Cold War stars than to Volpi’s own half-hearted original cast, whose members are clearly little more than vehicles for Volpi’s heavy-handed, utterly sterile critique of greed and the postmodern loss of individual identity. Even if Volpi intended for the storyline to play second fiddle to his socio-political commentary, poor character development renders these auxiliaries distracting and unnecessary at best.

The decidedly scientific lens that Volpi employs to dissect human nature, however, partly compensates for the novel’s lack of unique, believable characters; in “Season of Ash,” the unbendable laws of biology and genetics govern emotional decision-making. Volpi’s three women each dismiss emotion as an impractical figment of reality, for “feelings are the lingering misgivings of evolution, a pathology of intelligence, in the best case a self-preservation manual.” The novel frames love in terms of the primitive evolutionary drive to perpetuate genes, an attitude whose approach resonates throughout much of the story.

While Volpi’s motif of genes as deterministic prime-movers offers an insightful line or two, his prose otherwise lacks vigor and ingenuity. Volpi draws heavily from a repository of borrowed metaphors and personifications–riding on Conrad’s coattails to describe humans “embarking on a trip into the heart of darkness” is not quite so entrancing the second time around. Especially in light of Volpi’s notable ability to transition rather effortlessly between assuming the colloquialisms of post-Communist Russia and the jargon of American capitalism, one wonders why an author with such a nuanced command of language would resort to clichés so elementary in composition.

Volpi rounds out his scattered and unsatisfying account of 20th century history with a flurry of fictional accidents and tragedies that he seems to downplay as simple “proof of the irrationality of the future, the name we humans give to entropy.” Perhaps Volpi diminishes the significance of his character’s individual tragedies for the very purpose of making his point, but his failure to give us any reason to care about the characters who fall victim to tragedy renders his strategy ineffective.

Despite a lackluster descriptive strategy and a mediocre voice, “Season of Ash” provides some striking scientific explanations for the socio-political disasters of the past and takes a faithfully journalistic approach to exposing capitalism gone corrupt. Volpi asks some ambitious questions, but he does not answer them or even presume to–one wonders why he curtailed his analysis and commentary at this cursory level. While this hefty book disappoints in the context of its wandering, subpar storytelling, Volpi’s prolific ideas and occasional bent for powerful language should not preclude him from meeting more success with his next attempt.

—Staff writerMonica S. Liu can be reached at msliu@fas.harvard.edu.