Jorge Volpi’s “Season of Ash”

Reviewed by Lucy Popescu

Image of Jorge Volpi’s “Season of Ash”

Season of Ash (originally published as No será la Tierra in 2006) may be only Jorge Volpi’s second book to be translated into English but, to my mind, he is as thrilling a discovery as Chilean Roberto Bolaño. This ambitious and complex novel covers some of the most significant events of the last century from the Chernobyl disaster to the Human Genome Project, with a particular focus on the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Born in 1968, Volpi is one of Mexico’s leading writers and a founding member of the Crack Movement—a literary group that endorses the complexity of plot and style employed by Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. In Season of Ash, Volpi attempts toilluminate recent history through the individual stories of three women whose lives eventually collide: Irina, a Soviet biologist; Jennifer, daughter of a US senator and an International Monetary Fund economist; and Eva, a Hungarian scientist. He mainly concentrates on the tumult of the 1980s and 1990s—from the Challenger explosion to the horrors of the war in Chechnya and world-changing events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Crash of October 1987—recreating the diverse human responses to them.

Volpi is a master of the historical thriller and effortlessly blends an acute analysis of political events into his fiction. Despite this, Season of Ash (in an impressive English translation by Alfred Mac Adam) seems to have divided critics. Admittedly, the sweeping historical perspective and the fleetingness with which some of the characters appear—some real, others imagined—will not appeal to all readers but there is much to admire. Volpi’s meticulous research, his broad brush strokes and the way that the numerous stories are woven together to form an intricate portrait of a particular time echoes the work of another Mexican artist, muralist Diego Rivera.