3 sept. 2017

Niccolò Ammaniti's Anna: A Review

Niccolò Ammaniti, Anna (Melbourne: Text, 2017). 261 pages.
Sicily, the year 2020. A virus has wiped out the world’s adult population and only children have survived. Anna, a mere 12 years old, has been living with her little brother Astor in their now defunct mother’s home near a small Sicilian village. Once they have run out of food, she starts searching and pilfering. The world outside Mulberry Farm is a dangerous place: packs of hungry, aggressive dogs roam the autostradas and other minor roads, and in this post-apocalyptic scenario survival requires not only resolve but also great doses of ingenuity.

Astor has never been outside the perimeter marked by the fence of the farm. Anna has made him believe there are smoke monsters beyond and gases that will kill him instantly the moment he steps outside their safe area. But Anna cannot keep him forever in the darkness about the real world. When a group of children approach the house while Anna is out looking for food and medicines, Astor joins them, marvelling that, apart from Anna and himself, there are after all other people alive on this planet. What other surprises does this world have in store for him? This is a world where scorched landscapes, ransacked shops and broken windows are the norm. How can there be any hope?

Anna will follow and attempt to rescue her brother. In her pursuit, she’s accompanied by a big Maremma dog she had previously almost killed and then saved from a certain death. How to survive in this lawless children’s society is a challenge her mother’s handwritten book of rules and advice does not have answers for.

Another young boy, Pietro, follows her to an abandoned spa hotel in the Sicilian hills where thousands of children have gathered. Rumours about remedies and cures are endless, and no one knows exactly what is going on. Anna locates his brother, but Astor initially refuses to go with her. The tyranny of the hordes is shown here in its crudest form. After a so-called Fire Party goes horribly wrong, Pietro manages to rescue Astor, and the three leave for the coast.

The coastal village of Cefalù is where Anna, Astor, Pietro and the dog flee from the chaos in the hills.   Photograph by Bjs.
Anna never lets despair take hold of her heart, though. Survival is the only possible goal. Can there be adults still alive somewhere on the mainland, across the Strait of Messina? Anna, Astor and Pietro (always followed by their loyal Maremma) start a journey towards Messina, where they hope to find a boat or barge that will allow to reach the continent.

Strait of Messina. Can there really be a future across the seas?
Photograph by 
Anna is an unusual dystopian novel. The only adult voice comes in the form of a notebook, written by Anna and Astor’s mother in the weeks before the viral infection killed her, and where she wrote the Most Important Things. A post-apocalyptic world where children are the only survivors, and only for as long as they do not suffer any hormonal changes, is a doomed one. No child would make it into adulthood, and thus humanity would eventually vanish from the Earth.

Ammaniti includes some ironical elements in the narrative. The twin brothers who are still looking after their parents’ supermarket will only accept Domenico Modugno’s CDs as payment, but only those CDs they do not own yet. Some of the pre-pandemic advertisements Anna sees while roaming empty towns and cities are a stark reminder of the futility of the Western market-based economy. For instance, the insurance companies’ insistence on assuring our future. As if there were one!

Jonathan Hunt’s English translation captures the Italian flavour while staying close to familiar grounds for English language readers. The plot has some ups and downs in terms of tension and cohesion: there are loose ends, yes, although one may wonder if they need tidying up in a novel that portrays a future as grisly and dismal as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (NB: in Spanish). Good entertainment.

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