The latest novel by prolific Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa, The Book of Anna hinges on a paradoxical fantasy: rescuing Anna Karenina from Tolstoy. Framed by the revolutionary fervor of 1905 St. Petersburg, the novel races back and forth between street protests and the tsarist interiors of Karenin Palace, culminating in the eponymous “book of Anna.” Samantha Schnee’s excellent translation preserves Boullosa’s sudden shifts from comedy to didactic feminism to lyric weirdness, in a chatty present-tense that makes this mind-bending novel – an anarchic open-work of intertexts – a breezy read.
The Book of Anna’s dizzying premise is that Anna Karenina was the fictional author of a real book. Though Tolstoy’s Karenina dismissed her writing as analogous to “those little baskets” carved in prison (Anna Karenina 700), in The Book of Anna it is Tolstoy who has imprisoned and ultimately destroyed his creation. “Tolstoy admired her,” Boullosa said in an interview, “but his admiration was unbearable to him […] He admired her and he couldn’t bear her. In fact, he eliminated her” (my translation). In long parenthetical asides, The Book of Anna’s narrator defends and explains Karenina, speaking authoritatively about her inner life and that of other characters in a kind of free indirect projection, as if to set the record straight – once and for all – rectifying Tolstoy’s mistakes (“that’s another thing Tolstoy forgot: Karenina loved to laugh,” 104).
The novel begins when Clementine, a furious seamstress, attempts to bomb a tram. Loosely based on the infamous events of Bloody Sunday, street scenes alternate with domestic scenes at Karenin Palace, as Anna’s son Sergei and his wife, Claudia, debate to what extent they are fictional and what to do with Mikhailov’s portrait of Anna Karenina, which they have discovered in the attic, oblivious to the violence outside.
Anna’s “book” appears as its own section. Claudia Karenina discovers it alongside the portrait, and reads Anna Karenina’s revisionist fairy tale. A mixture of Cinderella, Vasilisa the Beautiful, The Practical Princess and others, “Anna, the forest girl” is given away by starving parents to an ambivalent patroness-villain called “the Illuminata.” In the Illuminata’s forest palace, Anna drifts in and out of sleep, experiences an erotic awakening with the key to a forbidden purple door, and eats a lot of cakes.
A final section (“After Reading”) returns us briefly to 1905. Clementine – wearing a rose velvet-and-lace dress that ostensibly belonged to Anna Karenina – finally manages to blow herself up, along with Prince Orlov’s green Mercedes, and in it the portrait of Anna Karenina, destined for the Winter Palace.
Karenina’s portrait is the real star of The Book of Anna. Painted by Baudelairian Mikhailov, who “could not paint a Christ who was not in [his] soul” (Anna Karenina 477), Boullosa’s version grows from “the seed of Tolstoy’s novel, his description of the portrait’s grandeur: It was not a picture, but a living and charming woman with curly black hair, bare shoulders and arms, and a dreamy half-smile” (115). The tsar’s experts compare the portrait to Tolstoy’s novel, “declaring the portrait to be superior” (108).
It is in Boullosa’s meta-ekphrasis that Anna Karenina comes most vividly alive, “looking more like herself than she did in real life” (103). Boullosa therefore rebuilds – in a sleight-of-hand – the jail of words from which she proposed to save Karenina. Evoking Tolstoy’s ekphrasis, she restores a complex memory experience for the reader of Anna Karenina. She not only cites particular words and phrases, but recaptures the power of Tolstoyan ekphrasis, understanding that it lies not in exactness of imagery, but in the stubborn insistence that we are seeing. His descriptions of Anna Karenina – both woman and portrait – are not vivid, but rather obsessively truthful reports on the blurred line between experience and representation, the irreducibility of aesthetic conceits to moral ones, an anti-romantic critique of Anna’s “simple” coiffure and “natural” “elegance,” which exist in an uneasy tension with her irreducible artificiality:
a low-cut velvet dress […] revealed her full shoulders and bosom, as if shaped from old ivory […] Conspicuous were only those wilful little ringlets of curly hair that adorned her, always coming out on her nape and temples, Around her firm, shapely neck was a string of pearls. […] her loveliness consisted precisely in always standing out from what she wore, that what she wore was never seen on her. And the black dress with luxurious lace was not seen on her; it was just a frame, and only she was seen […]” (Anna Karenina 79).
For Tolstoy, Karenina’s simplicity is artifice. He did not fail in the attempt to write Anna Karenina as a “real woman.” He refused. She was true to her devised form: a portrait, framed.
When Boullosa’s Sergei Karenin comes face to face with Mikhailov’s portrait, he does not see it, but references its “original,” with clear nods to the actual original – Tolstoy’s text:
this perfect image of Anna Karenina, looking more like herself than she did in real life, her face uncovered, her lovely neck and shoulders partially bared by her Italian dress, her thick, curly, black hair, her eyes, her magnificent mouth expressing intelligence, honesty, passion, her skin like old marble, a color unknown in those climes.
The portrait, the woman, walked along without touching the ground; she didn’t float through the air, because from her waist to the ground, she appeared to wear a pair of trousers belonging to the dark suit of the man who was carrying her. (103)
The humorous intertextuality with Anna’s “frame” at the ball – in the form of a man’s legs – exemplifies the virtuosic literary comedy for which Boullosa is too rarely appreciated.
Samantha Schnee must be congratulated for deftly citing Tolstoy while staying true to Boullosa’s now-chatty, now-ruminative voice. Schnee allows Boullosa to both evoke and destroy the Tolstoyan ekphrasis. His repeating words chime – lovely, elegant, natural; the old marble of Anna Karenina’s skin, the velvet of Clementine’s hand-me-down dress – before she tees up Boullosa’s surreal punchline, knocking down the concatenation of Tolstoyisms.
In Boullosa’s delirious meta-ekphrastic fanfiction, she stays paradoxically true to Tolstoy’s original. By liberating the “real” Anna Karenina, she reclaims her absolute artificiality. As Claudia Karenina muses before sending the portrait to the tsar, what Anna Karenina really looks like, by the end of The Book of Anna, is “the master-work of some fictional painter” (105).
Boullosa, Carmen. The Book of Anna. Translated by Samantha Schnee. Coffee House Press, 2020.
Claire Solomon is associate professor of Hispanic studies and comparative literature at Oberlin College. She is the author of Fictions of the Bad Life (2016) and essays on avant-garde theater, Manic Pixie Dream Girls, translation theory, and contemporary music. She has translated Roberto Arlt, Lidia Falcón, and Juan Goytisolo, and is currently writing a novel about higher education.
 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London: Penguin, 2004). All citations refer to this edition.