I wonder how many different takes on the post-apocalyptic tale there can be. I wonder why I picked up Anna from Italian Niccolo Ammaniti. I can’t remember where I saw the recommendation. But as I’ve never read any Italian dystopia I thought I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did, but not for the reasons you might think.
The list of post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve read is a longish one. The likes of:
- McCarthy’s The Road (2006)
- Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960)
- The Dog Stars (2012) by Peter Heller (essential The Road in the air)
- Vonnegut’s Galápagos (1985)
- Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957)
- The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher
- Station Eleven (2014) from Emily St. John Mandel
- Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) from Margaret Atwood
- The Postman (1985) from David Brin
- Defender (2017) by GX Todd
- John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes
- A bunch of zombie books
They all pretty much have the same story…one of survival in adversity. Overcoming the odds. The horrors humanity can sink to. A planet-wide Lord of the Flies.
And to be fair, that is pretty much the story of Anna. For our heroine is living in Sicily, after a virus wipes out everyone post-puberty. She’s not far away now, and is looking after her little brother, Astor, who she is trying to protect from the outside world, guided by a notebook written by her dying mother. After surviving a fair while, living off scraps and bargaining with the local boys for batteries and food, she encounters first a dog and then a boy called Pietro. She knows it won’t be long before Astor will be on his own, so with her new friends, they set off for the coast, hoping to make it to the Italian main-land, where grown-ups are rumoured to have survived.
And that is pretty much the story. They encounter a number of typical obstacles. The cultish colony with the mythical grown up who can cure everyone; the rebellion; the tragic accident; and the dilemma about leaving someone behind. Nothing new or surprising here. Except this is told from a pre-pubescent girl’s point-of-view as written by a middle-aged man. What Ammaniti does beautifully is two-fold.
Firstly, he doesn’t focus too much on the horrors. Anna doesn’t necessarily understand the world she lives in – referring to her mother’s book of guidance regularly. And Astor really doesn’t understand anything. So Ammaniti’s prose is about understanding and just getting by, which is what I guess most children do in any situation. The purpose of being human and learning is to find one’s place and purpose in the world. I believe Ammaniti is telling us this via the post-apocalypse cliché. The point of the story isn’t the science fiction warning element, but how a child becomes a young woman. The point is for Anna to discover herself without the help of any adult supervision. Although I’m not sure how Ammaniti put’s himself in Anna’s shoes.
But he does so and the second point, is that he writes beautifully. There’s not a page goes by without an awe-inspiring description, a well thought-out detail or a poetic reflection. In my copy (the Canongate paperback, 2015) there is no indication of a translator, so it may seem that Ammaniti can write in the most amazing English, although I’m aware some of his previous works have been translated. Maybe Italian translates well into English. I don’t know and would love someone to tell me.
Every so often Ammaniti changes pace and tells a different story. The story of the dog or the virus. Towards the climax, he tells the story of Pietro, which both frustrates and delights. It interrupts the climax but adds toll to it. Nice.
Can anything new be brought to the story of survivors once civilisation has broken down? Maybe not. Setting it in Sicily might be new to me, but it’s only window dressing. The truth of Anna is it about a young girl and her younger brother, and how their relationship develops as she reaches puberty; when she won’t be such as child any more. Bellissimo. Prego.