Midway through Carmen Boullosa’s The Book of Anna (Coffee House Press, 2020), Sergei Karenin, the now thirty-something adult son of Anna Karenina, makes a fool of himself in front of Tolstoy. In Boullosa’s rendition of early twentieth-century Russia, the creator of Anna Karenina is a household name, and his characters have been written with such complexity and verisimilitude that they have manifested themselves in real life. “I’m made of i-i-i-nk! A puppet made of ink!” Sergei stammers as Tolstoy accosts him in a dream. What he means is: so much of my life has been written, so much of it narrated, have I any control over what comes next? Who’s in charge? Tolstoy? God? (Boullosa?) Much earlier, Sergei thinks: “The future doesn’t fall on top of you like a gravestone…. But 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.”
Set in 1905, several decades after Anna’s death, The Book of Anna takes place against the backdrop of Russia’s Bloody Sunday, during which the imperial forces of Tsar Nicholas II slaughtered hundreds of unarmed working-class protestors organized by Father Georgy Gapon. Anna’s children, Sergei and Anya, are now well into adulthood. The novel is about their lives, the ramification of Anna’s suicide, Sergei’s vocal resignation toward his half-sister, and the gambit of free will for Tolstoy’s fictional characters. (The joke here is that Sergei and Anya haven’t escaped their inky fates; they’ve merely passed into the hands of a new writer.) But by the end, Boullosa is most concerned with those who appeared in the periphery of Tolstoy’s novel: the laborers in the kitchens and “downstairs” of the Karenin household, the drivers, the factory workers, and the greater proletariat of St. Petersburg.
Newly translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee, Boullosa’s novel begins with Clementine, an anarchist skeptical of Father Gapon’s revolution and his plan to send his dutiful followers to the bloody frontlines. Clementine is Boullosa’s proto-feminist voice in the novel. “You forget we women exist,” she says of Father Gapon’s union of factory workers. “We’re an afterthought, the tail of the fox, not the feet, the head, the mouth, as if we didn’t have the same rights as men.” At times it seems her role is to wink and nod at the reader, remind them that the book in their hands is a book of contemporary values.
Clementine’s life intersects with Anna’s in a series of uncanny coincidences. Toward the start of the novel, Clementine comes into possession of one of Anna’s old dresses, donated to charity long ago by Countess Vronskaya (Vronsky’s mother) “in a fit of wicked revenge, hoping women of the night would use them.” The dress is the same one Anna Karenina wore to the theater 30 years earlier, when Madame Kartasova “insulted her from the adjacent box, publicly humiliating her.” If Anya is made in her mother’s image, Clementine is Anna’s foil—a working class revolutionary who seeks to disrupt Russia’s oppressive aristocracy. Boullosa intertwines their fates in the novel’s violent end, a last-minute climax as inevitable as it is unpredictable.
Sergei and Anya are often recognized in public and treated as celebrities. One ambassador waylays Sergei at the symphony, saying, “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.” Anya is often forgotten by these strangers, spoken about only in terms of her extraordinary resemblance to her mother. According to Boullosa’s omniscient narrator, Anya is somehow less fictional than her fictional counterparts: “She barely appears in the novel [Anna Karenina] in which she was born, and that gives her personality more breadth . . . she’s almost real.” Meanwhile, Sergei is haunted by his fictionality. “Is there anyone here who sees me not as a character, but as a person? Even I think of myself as a character, a character who’s about to lose everything.” Only art and music offer him the “real illusion of being human” and, ultimately, that Happiness that was ever Tolstoy’s concern.
In the Karenin household, we see much of Sergei’s rampant discontent through his wife, Claudia, one of Boullosa’s notably “non-fictional” inventions. “Anya’s cradle was made of ink,” Boullosa writes. “Claudia’s had sheets from Seville.” Claudia and Sergei must decide what to do about a letter from the tsar. The emperor desires to acquire Mikhailov’s legendary portrait of Anna—a fictional portrait by Tolstoy’s fictional painter—described by Levin in Anna Karenina as “not a painting but a lovely living woman with dark, curly hair, bare shoulders and arms, and a pensive half smile on her lips, covered with tender down, looking at him triumphantly and tenderly with troubling eyes.” Levin notes that the painting appears more lifelike and dazzling than the woman herself. According to Boullosa, Sergei shares Levin’s observation: the first time he encounters the portrait, he briefly mistakes the enormous image of his mother for the real thing. The visceral image of his dead mother “[pierces] Sergei’s heart like a poisoned dart” and makes him physically ill.
If the burden of writing Sergei and Anya into adulthood wasn’t enough, Boullosa also takes the liberty of adding new dimensions to already established characters, usually traits or relationships that “Tolstoy forgot.” (Apparently, Anna “loved to laugh.”) The premise of Boullosa’s novel is in part an exegesis on what Tolstoy didn’t say, a reading between the lines of Anna Karenina. The title comes from Tolstoy’s brief mention of a manuscript Anna wrote during the last years of her life, a manuscript that the publisher Vorkuyev seemed desperate to obtain and print. As far as the reader knows, Anna considered it nothing more than an unfinished draft. Tolstoy never brings up the manuscript again. As Boullosa has it, “What [Tolstoy] doesn’t tell us is that Karenina continues to work on her manuscript. The few mornings she’s in the right state of mind, she begins making minor corrections. Then it becomes her companion at all hours, even in her opium-filled nights.” Boullosa’s Anna is not just a mother, an adulterer, a voracious reader, a woman desperately seeking gladness and fulfillment in life. She also has the misfortune of being a novelist.
Eventually it’s revealed that Anna was writing fairy tales during her final days, drawing elements from “Mary’s Child” by the Brothers Grimm, the oft-adapted “Bluebeard,” and “Cinderella” to create a bizarre, violent, and sexually charged patchwork of opium-induced fantasies supposedly intended for children (!). The style here isolates itself from the rest of the novel, with a surreal logic and deadpan vulgarity most characteristic of Boullosa’s earlier work, such as the Caribbean pirate novel They’re Cows, We’re Pigs (trans. Leland Chambers; Grove Atlantic, 2001) or her bildungsroman Before (trans. Peter Bush; Deep Vellum, 2016). If The Book of Anna is a novel about fate, the reader may see Anna’s lost manuscript as a failed vie for agency. (Tolstoy, after all, still writes Anna under the tracks.) Claudia, upon reading Anna’s books, thinks they must be about disobedience: “But this isn’t part of Tolstoy’s novel, she disobeyed him, just like we have. I wonder if Tolstoy knew?” Anna’s concerns with transgression and the celestial figures that write our fates are ultimately inherited by her children.
Does one need to have read Anna Karenina to read The Book of Anna? Certainly not. But the pleasures of Boullosa’s novel are immeasurably greater with Tolstoy’s on the brain. Samantha Schnee’s exquisite translation ushers in one of the most entertaining displays to date of Boullosa’s abilities as a subversive social satirist and an unperturbed purveyor of the grotesque. The Book of Anna is a delightful metatextual treasure hunt for the diligent reader, but it’s also strung together by tangible grief, rage, and earnest reflections on the power of art and music to make us feel a little more “real.” Though Tolstoy’s novel and Schnee’s translation are separated by 143 years, one feels the outsized spirit of anti-establishment Tolstoy in Boullosa’s work: the unjust sacrifice of Russia’s proletariat and their demand for better wages, affordable housing, health care, and the fall of the elite class. What, really, could be more modern?