Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The History Genome Project

Season of Ash
By Jorge Volpi

Translated by Alfred MacAdam
Open Letter Press
413 pages
October 31, 2009

And now what will we be, my friend? Russians? I'll confess: Beginning today, I consider myself a stateless person. I was born in a dead nation, in a territory that will lose its name, in an empty time the world insists on forgetting. I consider myself a citizen of Nothingness, I can flash a passport for Nowhere, perhaps I no longer exist. I'm an illusion, a mistake, collateral damage - that's what they call it - a ruin.

Ever read a book that is so large, contained so many multitudes, that you just don't know what to say about it? Because any attempt to sum it up would be utterly incomplete?

W.G. Sebald felt that, when writing about history through fiction, there was always the danger that certain vital truths would be lost in the flow of the narrative. At the same time, however, it is questionable whether the historian, writing non-fiction from an objective standpoint, can ever truly represent the personal, human side of the past. Austerlitz is noted for its understatement, its encyclopedic recitation of information, and for its use of photographs (pieces of reality) and memory (subjective knowledge) to attempt to recover forgotten lives. Jorge Volpi, Mexican lawyer-turned-scholar-turned-author, takes a very different approach from Sebald's detached, meandering prose that dances around the Holocaust, occasionally brushing it, but always preferring to ruminate on zoos, circuses, and architecture. Volpi gets down into the thick of things. He is. In. Your. Face. Of course, his history is more recent, ranging from the 1950s up through 2000, and subsequently fresher, without the blur of things long past. Sebald's Austerlitz was a work of memory. Volpi's Season of Ash, released in October 2009 by Open Letter Press and translated by Alfred Mac Adam, has the immediacy of a live news report.

Season of Ash is a history book written as fiction. Thanks to Volpi, I know why the Berlin Wall fell and didn't need the media to tell me last week when Germany was celebrating its 20th anniversary. I know what happened at Chernobyl, and how Soviet communism collapsed into the economic oligarchy it is today, and how Gorbechav's glasnost policy may have precipitated said collapse but really only threw the lid off problems that had been simmering for decades. Yet every protagonist Volpi focuses on is the product of Volpi's imagination. Jennifer Moore Wells, rich, miserable American economist; her greedy, philandering Wall Street husband Jack Wells; her iconoclastic sister Allison Moore; Arkady Granin, political prisoner and fanatical dissenter and his wife Irinya Granina, who is more principled than he is; their daughter Okshana, the lost poet; Hungarian-American Eva Hálasz, a tormented, cynical computer/biology/DNA genius; Yuri Chernishevsky the news-breaking journalist, human rights activist, and murderer; and various others - all of these rub shoulders with the elite history-makers of the recent past, from Bill Clinton to Boris Yeltsin to Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga to Imre Nagy to Norbert Wiener. It's impossible to tell who's real and who isn't.

Now some have argued that History is a neo-Platonic entity that acts on its own and merely sweeps humans along with it. Marxist historiography, for instance, posits that a universal ahistorical force (class struggle) overrides all other variables and tends toward certain inevitable outcomes (i.e. class warfare). It derives from Hegel's notion of the "World-Spirit," an embodiment of transcendent truth that can be discerned in the stories of disparate nations. History, in other words, is an epic narrative built upon a singular base superstructure.

Or is it? History, as the chronicle of human civilization, is ultimately human. In a novel concerned with, among other things, the Human Genome Project, Volpi portrays history as an "organism" made up of individual humans: as its cells that reproduce and perpetuate it, and as its genes that carry the information to move it along and develop it. A revolution is a genetic mutation that enables the species to either adapt or fail. The behavior of a few humans can alter a whole society (for example, Jennifer Moore's recommendation that price controls be abolished, which caused 99% of Russians to lose their life savings). For what are humans but products of evolution and biology, like every other species known to exist?
For centuries we depicted ourselves as central elements in the universe, children of an aloof God who turned control of the Earth and its resources over to us, the only species with the intelligence necessary to figure out the mysteries of life. Once we thought our planet was the navel of the cosmos, and only after countless disputes, did we dare to hand that privilege to the Sun, one star among millions. Our pride has no limits: The idea of being peripheral organisms, the result of chance or luck - mere accidents - still sounds like heresy. Irritated by this lack of meaning, we imagine that our existence obeys a supreme cause and deserves to be justified and reproduced. But neither Earth nor Sun is the custodian of the universe. Our misfortunes do not correspond to a pre-established plan or to the designs of a Superior Intelligence - vain consolation - and, in biological terms, we are barely distinguishable from the nematodes, to say nothing of the simians.
Each of Volpi's characters is concerned with becoming something greater than themselves: Jack and his money, Arkady and Irina and their ideals, Oksana and her poetry, Allison and her ideals, Eva's drive to understand the secrets of life and consciousness, and so forth. The Soviet Union and communism themselves were attempts to perfect the human experience and call down Heaven to Earth - to build a worker's paradise where there would be no slavery and exploitation. But Jack, Arkady, Allison, Oksana, Eva, and the Soviet Union all fell. In the end - what is the point? Why do we continue to strive? Are we bound by our genes? Will unraveling our DNA finally reveal the meaning of our lives, a question once answerable only through religion?

Soviet biologist (and Season of Ash character) Trofim Denisovich Lysenko once contorted science and crammed it into politically correct Marxist parameters (genes and chromosomes, it seemed, were a "bourgeoisie lie"), earning him the acclaim of Stalin himself. Volpi refuses to do such a thing to history: twist it until it reveals the truth of Volpi's own political ideology. History is human. The course of individual human lives sometimes reveal the course of history. Season of Ash is a grand epic, but that is the thread that binds the whole big story together. For better or worse, people act, and history is made.

Enough freezing me with fear,
     I'll invoke Bach's chaconne
          and a man will enter when it's over
who will not be my beloved husband,
     but together we will be so fearsome
          that the twentieth century will be shaken to its root.
Not wanting to I confused him
     with the mysterious envoy of destiny,
          the one with whom bitter suffering would arrive.
He'll come to my Fontanka Palace,
     very late, on that night of fog,
          to toast the New Year with wine.
And he will keep in his memory Epiphany night,
     the maple tree at the window, the nuptial candles
          and the mortal flight of the poem. . .
But it is not the first bouquet of lilies,
     nor the ring, nor the sweet prayers;
          It's death, that's what he brings me.

Now regarding our recent discussions on Kristin Lavransdatter and the definition of historical fiction and women's roles in it: do you think Season of Ash qualifies as historical fiction, even though it depicts very recent events? Why do you think Season of Ash is likely to be seen as more literary and "serious" than the romance and domesticity of Kristin Lavransdatter? Or do you disagree with that - do you think both novels are likely to be regarded as being of equal artistic value? Historical fiction - discuss!

And also: this photo essay on the aftereffects of Chernobyl.


Emily said...

Ugh, I am kind of tortured by the whole historical fiction boondoggle. Yes, I do think Season of Ash is historical fiction; your description reminds me quite a bit of William Vollman's Europe Central, which I wrote about a while ago, and which was also historical fiction set in Russia and Germany in the WWII/Cold War period. I'm realizing more and more that what I'm averse to in Kristin Lavransdatter is not "historical fiction" but a subset of historical fiction that has to do with religion and romance rather than war and other words traditionally "feminine" subjects. Which makes me feel like a dirty sexist! What to do, what to do.

Anyway, I was intrigued by your Season of Ash review, so thanks for that. :-)

E. L. Fay said...

I think you're right - religion is okay, but it's the romance part of KL that sorta turned me off. Which makes me think of the feminist response to criticism of the romance genre - that it gets disparaged because it's written by women for women. But really, Westerns, spy novels, most horror, etc isn't exactly seen as "high brow" either.

Emily said...

You're right of course, as far as the response of the "literature establishment" goes...but when I think about my own reading habits, I just finished a western (Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian), and I have no trouble taking John Le Carré and Raymond Chandler seriously. Which makes me feel like a tool for dismissing Undset. Oh, the angst! ;-)

Larry said...

I read this in Spanish a little over a year ago and loved it. Have you considered trying more of Volpi's work, such as The Search for Klingsor? That one (and really, all of his works) was about as good as this book.

Another author you may or may not enjoy is Ignacio Padilla. He, Volpi, and a few other Mexican writers back in the mid-1990s came up with the Crack Manifesto group, which was devoted to taking Mexican fiction in directions away from an insular approach to the past/present. I think you might enjoy looking into their works.

E. L. Fay said...

Emily: I actually wonder if there is really anything inherently feminine about romance. I've just noticed that most of the books I read are written by men. Stuff about romance, relationships, etc just doesn't interest me. Does that mean I'm non-feminine? Why don't more female authors write stuff like Season of Ash?

Larry: Wow, The Search of Klingsor sounds awesome! I'll have to check that out.

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