Perhaps I’m being a little snarky, but when you write a negative review and NPR and the like says it is one of the best translated books of the year, you might feel a little annoyed. But now Scott at the Quarterly Conversation points out that the NY Times has given it a bad review, too. It is a harsh review, harsher than I thought needed, but funny. One cannot not get any harsher than this, “Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.”
John Updike once opened a review with this cruel gallantry: “I wanted very much to like this book, and the fact that I wound up hating it amounts to a painful personal failure.” The Mexican writer Jorge Volpi’s latest novel, “Season of Ash,” is also 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.
“Season of Ash” is about nearly everything that has happened over the last 50 years: Chernobyl, the collapse of Communism, the rise of biogenetics and environmental terrorism. Other, equally significant events make their way into the narrative as well. Hello, Challenger explosion. Greetings, AIDS. Salaam, Soviet war in Afghanistan. Wassup, W.T.O. riots. Volpi is a leading member of the so-called Crack group, an upstart literary movement of Mexican writers understandably bored by the devices and expectations of magical realism. Until one actually reads it, “Season of Ash” looks poised to become a foundational repudiation of everything one has come to expect from the literature of the Spanish-speaking Americas. From his novel’s first sentence (“Enough rot, howled Anatoly Diatlov”), Volpi attempts to be the first great Russian novelist who is not actually Russian. Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.”
I will say I think Tom Bissell missed the Homeric references in the book. Although, Bissell rightly points out they don’t add much to the story.
Volpi additionally insists on saddling cities and walk-on historical personages with weird, mock comic agnomens: Moscow is not Moscow but “Moscow, that city of wide avenues.” Berlin is not Berlin but “Berlin, the island surrounded by cannibals.” Mikhail Gorbachev is “Gorbachev, shepherd of men.” Andrei Sakharov is “Sakharov, maker of light.” Ronald Reagan is “Reagan, sovereign of heaven.” Why Volpi does this for the novel’s entirety is as impossible to fathom as so many of his other decisions. “Season of Ash” may well mean to challenge fiction’s conventions. Instead, in its failures, it grimly confirms them.