Reviews

A Twist on Tolstoy in “The Book of Anna”

A review of Carmen Boullosa's new novel, "The Book of Anna."

Carmen Boullosa’s The Book of Anna begins with an unexploded bomb, or rather, one that fizzles out, “like an old man farting.” The anarchist seamstress Clementine has smuggled an explosive device onto a tram in St. Petersburg by hiding it in a bundle of rags and rocking it like a baby. The date is January 8, 1905, and Russia is on the eve of revolution. The next morning a group of factory workers holding icons and portraits of the Tsar will process to the Winter Palace, petitioning for better working conditions, decent housing, and healthcare—and will be massacred in an event known as Bloody Sunday. Meanwhile, Sergei Karenin, son of Anna Karenina, leaves his city mansion with his wife Claudia to attend a concert at the Marinsky Theater, their chauffeur stopping along the way to pick up his sister Anya. When acquaintances refer to the political unrest during intermission, neither Sergei nor Anya knows what they are talking about. Newly translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee, The Book of Anna (first published as El Libro de Ana in 2016) is a metafictional novel, a sequel of sorts to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. While the original Anna Karenina is a doorstop of a novel, a nineteenth century work of literary realism whose power accumulates through dense detail over hundreds of pages, The Book of Anna is a slim, playful sequel set in the early twentieth century that is deeply attuned to the concerns of the twenty-first. 

Boullosa is a prolific Mexican poet, essayist, and fiction writer whose work should be better known in the U.S. She is the author of 15 novels, a handful of which are available in English translation, including the early novel Before (Antes, 1989), the coming-of-age story Leaving Tabasco (Treinta Años, 1999), and the ambitious Texas: the Great Theft (Texas, 2014) which was also translated by Schnee. Praised by her friend and contemporary Roberto Bolaño as “Mexico’s best woman writer,” Boullosa’s work exhibits some of the characteristics of so-called “magical realism,” but with a sense of humor that is all her own.

In The Book of Anna, Boullosa takes a playful, postmodern approach to her material, conjuring a reality in which both Tolstoy’s novel and its characters exist, as if Tolstoy has succeeded in writing them into being. Both Sergei and Anya are aware of their own fictionality, as are the other characters around them, all of whom have also read Anna Karenina. Sergei, Anna’s son by Karenin, resents Anya not just because she is his half-sister (the result of his mother’s affair with Vronsky), but, “even worse, she was a constant reminder that he and Anya had been written by Tolstoy. That’s what he really can’t bear.”

In an interview Boullosa gave after the book’s publication, she admits that she views Anna’s suicide at the end of Tolstoy’s novel as the author punishing his creation: “He admired this brilliant woman… He admired her and could not bear it. In fact, he eliminated her.” In Boullosa’s version, Anna gets a turn to tell her own story when Claudia discovers a manuscript written by Anna herself, the titular “Book of Anna,” which Boullosa labels “an opium-infused fairy tale.” Part Bluebeard’s Castle, part Cinderella, Anna’s text has a dreamlike, fairy-tale logic and is fueled by a smoldering eroticism. It reads like a feminist rebuke to her static portrait and to Tolstoy’s efforts to “fix” or correct Anna on the page.

Throughout the novel Boullosa is interested in the ways that an artist’s creations take on lives of their own. Sergei’s plotline centers around the Tsar’s request that he turn over Mikhailov’s famous portrait of his mother for inclusion in the Imperial Collection, and the painting serves as another representation of his infamous mother as well as another example of the male gaze. The narrator reminds us frequently of the unique nature of literary characters: “a being that has a fixed past, a written past, is by definition inert, indecisive, like a figure frozen in musical statues, the children’s game.” This may be why both Sergei and Anya, Tolstoy’s characters, feel somewhat static on the page, while Boullosa’s own creations—particularly the anarchist Clementine and the canny Claudia—feel most alive. Tolstoy himself makes an appearance when he enters Sergei and Claudia’s dreams, as do some other historical figures—including the leader of the strike (and government agent) Father Gapon and the Communist Alexandra Kollontai. The two main plot lines come together in a tragicomic final chapter.

The Book of Anna succeeds at defamiliarizing Tolstoy’s original, re-envisioning it through an entertaining feminist lens. It left me wanting to read more of Boullosa’s work — and hoping that more of it will soon be available to the English-speaking world.

Cover image of The Book of Anna

FICTION
The Book of Anna
By Carmen Boullosa
Coffee House Press
Published April 14, 2020

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