Probably mostly due to fear of popular culture, I’m immediately mistrustful of a book that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited entirely by children.
That these feelings are somewhat mitigated by the thought of these plot parameters being plunked down in Sicily rather than, say, New York, doesn’t absolve me of my pre-judgment so much as reveal a hypocrisy in my tastes.
Readers of English who, like me, can’t help but have their interest shallowly tickled by a futuristic wasteland in which survivors scour humanity-as-we-know-it’s remainders for the last jars of Nutella and pesto, need not fear having their hopes dashed by Niccolò Ammaniti’s Anna, due out in Jonathan Hunt’s translation from independent Scottish publisher Canongate this week.
In its pages, a parentless teenager guzzles Amaro Lucano before drifting off to sleep, one of a pair of Nintendo enthusiast brothers is named Mario, and both dog and human are likened to salamis. Readers will also find a simple surface appeal, a deeper humanism, and a sly humor in Ammaniti’s writing.
In Anna, all the adults in Sicily—and presumably in the rest of Italy, Europe and the world—have been killed off by a virus known as the Red Fever. Children continue to contract the disease roundabout thirteen or fourteen, and eventually die like those before them. The main character of the book is, unsurprisingly, Anna, a girl who has been left explicit instructions by her expiring mother on how to care for herself and her little brother, Astor. These instructions range from how to dispose of her mother’s body, to how to cope without electricity, to an insistence that Anna teach Astor to read.
Perhaps due to her mother’s clear-headedness during her final days and her love for her brother, Anna has managed enough mental strength to keep herself and Astor safe in her family’s home for around three years. In the countryside around them, other children have organized themselves into occasionally intersecting groups that merge to enact a more menacing, sort of predictable, quite literal version of Burning Man. Anna and Astor remain oblivious to most of this, rarely interacting with other children, until they’re sidelined by the outside world: Anna is followed by a dog who she fights, wounds and winds up adopting. Astor is kidnapped by the kids behind the Burning Man-esque antics, who have constructed their own makeshift civilization.
The prose encompassing Anna’s thoughts, her memories and vignettes of lives lived before the virus outbreak—which are interwoven gracefully into the text with the help of genuinely charming subheadings—is limpid and beautiful, and injected with surprising lightness and humor. Anna doesn’t beat you over the head with its wretchedness the way a Hollywood movie with a similar plot line might.
Relative to the flashbacks, the present-action writing does skew more two-dimensional at times, particularly towards the middle of the book and in stretches of dialogue. Anna’s romance-laced interactions with a boy named Pietro—who, along with the dog Anna nearly kills, becomes a faithful companion—come off to me as a little stilted and wooden, even for hardheaded adolescents faced with their own mortality. Granted, at least some of this may be cultural. And in any case, it’s admirable that Ammaniti resists simplifying unchecked youth culture into something merely cruel and horrific. There are certain circumstances (namely puberty and disease) that loom imminently, but the characters are permitted room to breathe beyond them.
The strength of Anna lies not just in its luminous backstories but in the offbeat charm of its details: Pietro is searching for a particular pair of Adidas shoes that he believes will allow him to magically walk away into a parallel universe where the outbreak never happened. The dog who follows Anna is given three names, all of them ridiculous, by three different people, and must struggle for his survival at the hands of every human companion. Anna’s parents, a mismatched pair first married due to her unplanned conception, truly bonded over her father’s infidelity years later and thus created Astor. Ammaniti writes a world fraught with the drama of survival in which consequences somehow feel light compared to intentions.