When opening The Book of Anna, a three-page table of contents is followed by a preface titled: “An Explanation of What This Book Is About.” The author, Carmen Boullosa, imparts that The Book of Anna is a book written by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; the famous character mentions working on the novel in the classic tome. Of course, The Book of Anna is written by Boullosa, but it’s all par for the course in this experimental and playful novel that at once is a tribute to the book Anna Karenina, and also means to revise the portrayal of its central female character.
Boullosa’s novel is sectioned into five parts; they feel like disparate sections tenuously threaded together by the flicker of Anna Karenina’s memory or ghostly gossamer. The Book of Anna is at once so many things that it might feel burdensome trying to parse, but Boullosa’s humorous infusion throughout winks at the reader, and makes it light and absolutely enjoyable. I cracked so many smiles while reading.
The Book of Anna starts with Clementine, an anarchist in 1905 Russia who intends to set off a bomb on a train. Then Anna’s children Anya and Sergei are introduced, now adults since Tolstoy’s novel, and the latter psychologically consumed with his mother’s still-vivid reputation in St. Petersburg, but also by the fact that he’s a fictional character. At the opera, strangers approach him not so much like a celebrity, but like someone they intimately know from a distance:
“‘I’ve read Tolstoy’s novel so many times that you could even say I’ve memorized it. I’m overcome by the incredible opportunity to speak with one of its characters…’”
(Haven’t you thought of what you would say if you met a character from your most beloved book?)
The novel continues to bend and break expectations, as it follows along with true history in characters like Father Gapon and the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1905, as well as referring to the impending Potemkin battleship mutiny. All this history Boullosa ties back to Anna in some way or another, blending fiction and non-fiction, even making Tolstoy appear as himself (in a dream) with an allusion that Anna and her fate represents what Russia is heading for without political change. Yeah, it’s heady as fuck and I love it!
So let’s stop here and ask: do you need to have read Anna Karenina before reading this? I suppose not, but it will definitely spoil Anna’s ending (I mean: it’s a book that’s been out for over a century, so good on you if you don’t know the famous tragedy that ends Anna’s story). And you’ll miss out on some of the feelings I had; struck with wonder at the layering that Boullosa achieves in conversing with the old classic—with literature as a whole—and with Tolstoy and Tolstoy’s characters within her own. (Get that straight?) There’s the Anna that Tolstoy wrote and there’s the ghost that lives on in the lives of her children via Boullosa. Her spirited novel also rewrites, or deepens, the portrait of Anna herself: “that’s another thing Tolstoy forgot: Karenina loved to laugh,” or, when Sergei and his wife have the same dream that Tolstoy appears in, Boullosa speaks for Tolstoy himself, and I snort-laughed as Tolstoy elucidates:
“Man cannot live without knowing the truth, not even if he’s a man of fiction, not even the fiction I write, because I write only what I know, and the only world I know is that of men.”
That takes place in the section about a painted portrait of Anna Karenina, an artwork deemed superior by some cultural critics to the book (are you laughing yet?). Boullosa continues exploring facets of Tolstoy’s characters, name-dropping secondary characters at times, and even detailing what happened to Anna’s ol’ lover Alexei Vronsky.
Boullosa continues to charm—though a shade darker—in a section that is written like a fairytale, ostensibly by Anna herself. It has recognizable aspects of “Cinderella,” but in the shadow of Tolstoy’s book, it reads like a feminist treatise full of metaphors about fate, love, and ownership. It’s fascinating and was the most enthralling section of the book for me, but it also does not let up on the humor:
“We can also agree that thinking of herself as Cinderella is slightly corny.”
The finale begins with a character unsatisfied with the ending of Anna’s fairytale. Boullosa raises her eyebrows at the reader—you!—as her own ending approaches. I relished this feeling of conversation with the Mexican author, and the book’s translator, Samantha Schnee. Schnee has won awards for her translations of Boullosa’s works in the past, and given how much I enjoyed The Book of Anna, I know I’ll specifically be looking for their partnered works. This is the first book I’ve read by Boullosa, who is also a poet and playwright. She was previously awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and last year she won the Casa de América de Poesía Americana prize for the best volume of Spanish poetry in the Americas. I know I’ll be seeking out more of her prose, as this book speaks to such intelligence and wit, that I can’t wait to revisit their distinct qualities again in my reading and be taken on another literary experiment of her words.
The Book of Anna is an innovative delight. If you’ve read Anna Karenina, I highly recommend seeking out its myriad pleasures and reveling in the lively examination of writers, literature, art, and history. If you haven’t, I would still recommend it, and then come tell me what your conversation with Boullosa was like.
The Book of Anna
By Carmen Boullosa
Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee
200 pages. 2020.