The Crack-Up

The Crack-Up

The Latin American utopia has disappeared, says novelist and crackero Jorge Volpi, and he displays little nostalgia for it.


The year 1994 was a cacophonous one in Mexico. NAFTA fell with a dull boom from the north; a gunshot took the life of the ruling party’s presidential candidate; more shots echoed up from the southern state of Chiapas; the peso tripped, tumbled, crashed. With all the din, it was easy to miss the sound of what would later be described, with much fanfare, as a "crack"–a rupture dividing a small group of young Mexican novelists from the generation that preceded them, or perhaps uniting them to a still earlier generation, or dividing serious novelists from silly ones, or daring, cosmopolitan lit from provincial kitsch and pap. What exactly was cracking wasn’t clear, but it was in 1994 that the young writers Jorge Volpi, Ignacio Padilla and Eloy Urroz together published a collection of novellas titled Tres bosquejos del mal (Three Sketches of Evil), and it was that year, according to Volpi, that the "Generación del Crack" was born.

The name did not indicate a literary devotion to cocaine’s least fashionable form. It was meant, revealingly, as onomatopoeia, as if English orthography were the natural vehicle for the representation of primitive sound. (NAFTA followed a similar logic, supposing a northward flow as the natural direction of capital.) The group’s formation would not become audible until two years later, when the crackeros, joined by Ricardo Chávez Castañeda and Miguel Ángel Palou, issued a manifesto at a cultural center in Mexico City. Theirs would be "totalizing" novels, they promised, "profound and severe with their readers." They liked Beckett and Calvino and Cervantes and Sterne and the giants of the "Boom": Cortázar and Fuentes, and García Márquez before "magical realism" became a sort of fragrant ghetto enclosing Latin American fiction. Despite the phonic violence of their name, they announced, "There would be no rupture, then, but continuity. And if there were any kind of rupture, it would be only with the chaff, the pernicious Gerber’s of the moment…the cynically superficial and dishonest novel." In other words, they swore to write good books. "If something is happening with the Crack novels," the manifesto winked, "it’s not a literary movement, but simply and fully an attitude."

It was also shrewd PR, an attempt to stake a claim in a publishing industry that had begun shifting drastically in the 1980s, consolidating into a few big and largely Spanish-owned houses variously infected with the virus locally known as bestsellerismo. We might call it Oprah-ism. It had become harder than ever for young writers of literary fiction to break into the globalized and sales figure-obsessed market, so Volpi and his comrades published novels nearly simultaneously and issued their manifesto to coincide with the releases. Each book was tagged with a crimson promotional label identifying it as a "Novela del Crack." The crackeros, for all their rebel posturing, were making a bid for inclusion.

The move was not, initially, well received. Mexican critics remained unimpressed until 1999, when Volpi’s fifth novel, In Search of Klingsor, won the prestigious Premio Biblioteca Breve, awarded by the Spanish publisher Seix Barral. Volpi’s sales exploded; In Search of Klingsor was translated into nineteen languages; the Crack manifesto was reprinted in Spain by the Barcelona-based cultural journal Lateral; Spanish presses discovered the novels of Volpi’s less celebrated colleagues. Volpi was appointed cultural attaché to France, Padilla to Britain. Crack had gone global. At home, not everyone was buying it–in 2003 Elena Poniatowska was still mocking "Kid Volpi," and the critic Rafael Lemus has dismissed Volpi’s novels as "airport literature"–but abroad, Crack had become the Nike of Mexican literature.

The crackeros, though, and Volpi in particular, chafed at the very idea of Mexican-ness as a literary category, and at the condescending opinion announced from perches north of the border and across the Atlantic that Mexican writers should demonstrate their authenticity by writing about Mexican themes, that the universal was a commodity owned exclusively by gringos and Europeans. In Search of Klingsor, a reimagining of the Nazi effort to develop an atomic bomb, lacked a single reference to Mexico. The Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante called it "a German novel written in Spanish." (He meant that as a compliment.) Volpi’s next novel, El fin de la locura (The End of Madness), took on the utopian legacy of 1968–not in Tlatelolco but in Paris. The idea of a national literature, Volpi protested, is a nineteenth-century anachronism. A literature common to an entire hemisphere was still more absurd. "Let us be radical," he said in a lecture delivered last summer. "Latin American literature does not exist."

He’s right, of course, and not just in a positivistic sense. The bonds connecting Clarice Lispector to Laura Esquivel are less than negligible. But Volpi’s insistence on the obvious is not merely a statement of fact. It is also a strategic act of self-positioning. Just as Crack was not about contesting the terms of the international literary market but of finding a way in, a way to make Crack boom, Volpi has been uninterested in challenging the smug dichotomy that awards something called universality to the global North while condemning the rest of the world to the folkloric particularities of national literatures. On the contrary, he has affirmed the paradigm: "To make a crude simplification," Volpi said in a 2004 talk, "one of the great problems of culture in Mexico has been the constant alternation between two apparently contrary paths: mexicanidad and universality." Volpi’s choice, he has made abundantly clear, is with the latter.

This stance, of course, has its political side. In rejecting the meaningfulness of not only Mexican but Latin American literature as a category, Volpi is explicitly spurning the legacy of the leftist Boom writers who self-consciously created a Latin American literature that was both cosmopolitan and particular, that conversed with the novelistic traditions of Europe and the United States without fear of being subsumed by them. "The Latin American utopia has disappeared," Volpi contends. He displays little nostalgia for it. In his fiction and essays, he portrays the intellectual left since 1968–the year, not incidentally, of his birth–as hopelessly compromised by its silences and collusions. "Behind its well wishes, its anxiety to improve the world and its passion for utopia," says a character in The End of Madness, "was always concealed a totalitarian temptation. Always." Our inheritance, as Volpi represents it, is the familiar disillusioned world of neoliberal orthodoxy: postideological and postnational (at least for those who can afford the visa or the coyote). There is no sense rebelling, and only one team to join.

This, in broad outline, is the world of Season of Ash, published in Spanish in 2006 as the final installment of the historical trilogy that began with In Search of Klingsor, and just released here in a translation by Alfred Mac Adam for the generally excellent press Open Letter. The failure of communism, the collapse of the Soviet Union–and with it that strange and stubborn ghost, ideology–is apparently so crucial to Volpi that it must be marked repeatedly. The novel begins with a brief dramatization of the Chernobyl disaster, the USSR’s first symbolic death. The giant concrete sarcophagus in which the nuclear plant’s reactor is eventually sealed off, Volpi writes, is the "final legacy of communism." But it lives on to die again three years later, when the last Russian soldier retreats from Afghanistan, and again in 1990, when the first McDonald’s opens in Moscow and one character announces to his wife, "We are witnessing the end of the planned economy and therefore of the Soviet Union itself!" Then one last time on New Year’s Eve 1991, just after the Supreme Soviet really has dissolved itself, the couple’s brooding daughter writes a letter to Anna Akhmatova: "Today is the last day of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics, the last day of Communism, the last day of our era." A few pages later, in case the corpse wasn’t dead enough, Volpi incinerates it. His narrator opines that–like Latin American literature–"The worst thing about the Soviet Union is that it had never existed."

It is possible that he protests too much. But why? Out of clumsiness, certainly, and ideology, of course–like a child yelling, "I’m not here!" from his hiding place beneath the bed, the declared absence of ideology is the surest sign of its presence–but also because he is keen to kill off all vestiges of what was once called History, that Hegelian-cum-Marxist understanding of humankind as a vector endowed with momentum, direction and an over-the-rainbow goal. Though Volpi lets himself be distracted by such novelistic conventions as character and plot, his main subject is a history of a different sort: decidedly lowercase and filtered through a shinier, sexier brand of determinism than the expired economic kind. After communism crumbles, the fates of Volpi’s narrator and his three female protagonists coalesce around the Human Genome Project. A much-simplified Richard Dawkins is the guiding prophet here: our genes compel us. They are selfish, just as we are. "Our misfortunes do not correspond to a pre-established plan or to the designs of a Superior Intelligence," Volpi writes. "In biological terms, we are barely distinguishable from the nematodes…. We humans are simply survival machines, ephemeral redoubts against chaos, docile guardians of our genes. That and that alone."

The concluding italicized fragment once again begs the question. But consistent with this guiding theory (don’t call it ideology), none of Volpi’s characters bear much by way of complexity. Most can be exhaustively described with a sentence of backstory and an adjective or two. The book begins with the narrator, Yuri Mikhailovich Chernishevsky (courageous celebrity novelist and journalist who dared to take on the Russian oligarchs, and whose stint in the military during the Afghan war left him with a dark side), in prison for the murder of his lover, the beautiful and brilliant Eva Halász (icily passionate Hungarian-born pioneer in artificial intelligence, unapologetic in her erotic egoism), whom he shared grudgingly with Jack Wells (slick, shallow American biotech entrepreneur and unscrupulous social climber), the ex-husband of the heiress Jennifer Moore (high-powered IMF career woman whose neglect of her maternal instincts has left her bitter and repressed), who has just learned that her sister Allison (narcissistic, naïve rich-kid activist who leaps from one lefty-hippie cause to the next while neglecting her own son) was killed in the West Bank while standing in the path of an Israeli bulldozer. Really. To complete the trinity of deaths, the aforementioned couple–Arkady Ivanovich Granin (blindly egomaniacal Soviet-era dissident scientist turned Russian Federation power broker) and his now-estranged wife, Irina Nikolayevna Sudayeva (once promising biologist who believed in Arkady’s idealism and gave up everything to stand beside him)–are briefly reunited to identify the body of their murdered daughter, Oksana (she of the letters to Akhmatova: sensitive, troubled, lost).

Those three deaths occur with all due symbolism on the next-to-last day of the second millennium. From that tidy, triple-zeroed year, Volpi backs into his story. Its plot is described by the interweaving, transcontinental paths of his characters, making stops in Moscow, Budapest, Baku, Berlin, Boston, New York, Washington, Sverdlovsk, San Francisco, Kinshasa, even Mexico City, which we see only through the narrow eyes of Jennifer Moore (it doesn’t make a good impression). Volpi supplies briefs on his characters’ youths–enough to establish a basic psychological profile and tag a few key historical moments–then telescopes lurchingly forward, often sliding past years of development in a single soap-operatic sentence, as in: "Jennifer’s birth changed his life and gave him the strength to overcome the colon cancer that had left him hopeless." The individual stories don’t add up to much. We know from the outset where they’re headed. There is, Volpi’s narrator warns the reader, no greater meaning to be found: "Because of an inscrutable principle, Irina Nikolayevna Sudayeva, Arkady Ivanovich Granin, and their daughter Oksana; Jennifer Moore and her sister Allison; the infamous Jack Wells; and my beloved Eva Halász formed an immaterial network, mere points on a Cartesian plane."

His protagonists, thin as they are, end up feeling like stage props in a mad, Where’s Waldo? version of twentieth-century history. Nothing small happens in Season of Ash. History, it turns out, is not just a series of meaninglessly interrelated events linked only by the dumb imperatives of our DNA. It’s a chain of spectacular media moments, a Newsweek timeline writ large. Volpi guides us past the 1929 crash, Stalin’s purges, Stalin’s death, the 1956 invasion of Hungary, the ascension of Gorbachev, the Challenger explosion, the AIDS epidemic, the bombing of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, the birth of the "Star Wars" missile defense system, the flight of Mathias Rust, the founding of Earth First!, the stock market crash of 1987, the beginning of the first intifada, the introduction of Prozac and the all-important fall of the Berlin Wall.

Some of this is fascinating. Did you know, for instance, that with disastrous results, Soviet biologists and agronomists rejected Mendelian genetics as a bourgeois myth in favor of a Lamarckian paradigm that imagined environmentally acquired traits to be inheritable? And that Mendelian holdouts in the Soviet academy were sacked, tortured and jailed? If Volpi had made something more of this and other such details, if he had engaged with them and let them complicate his greatest-hits rush to the millennium, Season of Ash might have been riveting, as grand and complicated as its subject matter. But his treatment of the events he describes is hasty and superficial, like a string of Wikipedia entries knotted inelegantly each to each. (Quoth Jennifer, straight-faced, in 1990: "We’ve won the Cold War, Jack, without having to fire a single shot, and now the Russians are at our mercy.") If the teleological History of yore was more than a tad confining, the lowercase history we’re left with, as Volpi depicts it, is a silly, shallow jumble.

It would be tempting to say that this is his point. Volpi clearly did not set out to write a novel of great psychological depth. At times, he seems eager to mock the very notion of three-dimensionality, as if the flatness of cliché were a more metaphysically honest aesthetic. He likes to cite numbers, and does so with an arch, anti-lyrical glee: stock market gains from 1994, Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 poll results, census details from the Jenin refugee camp. His characters, you’ll remember, move "like points on a Cartesian plane." And as in the Homeric epics, in which Achilles is invariably "swift-footed" and the sea always "wine-dark," Volpi hands world-historical cities and men over to trim, ironic epithets. Nearly every mention of Washington, DC, is followed by the phrase "axis of the cosmos," New York City by "navel of the world." Moscow gets the relatively drab "city of wide avenues." Gorbachev is nicknamed "shepherd of men." Bill Clinton is the "imperial seducer" and Ariel Sharon, delightfully, "a savage seal."

But Season of Ash does not hold up as satire. There is not enough at stake here: not enough doubt, not enough struggle, not enough warmth. Volpi is not contesting anything, and his glibness quickly gets old. The story he tells is less about his characters or whether we are slaves to our genes than about the second half of the twentieth century. His is an entirely conventional account–the brutal totalitarian nightmare of state socialism falls to a hunger for democracy and cheap consumer goods, which in turn leads to the slightly lesser but still pretty worrisome evils of capitalist inequality, corruption and anomie. This is the dominant interpretation of the moment, the figure in the carpet of nearly every editorial from the New York Times to Reforma to El País, and it makes for dull literature. The Crack manifesto didn’t make many concrete promises, but it promised more than this.



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