Poet­ry

The Book of Anna

Joy Ladin

By – March 2, 2022

Many Holo­caust mem­oirs — Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a notable exam­ple — eschew strict real­ism to tack­le the chal­lenge of of writ­ing mean­ing­ful­ly about the Shoah, even after the sur­vivors of the atroc­i­ties and the per­pe­tra­tors them­selves are gone. Tak­ing its cue from the canon of such mem­oirs, Joy Ladin’s The Book Of Anna pro­pos­es an intrigu­ing­ly struc­tured post-Holo­caust vari­a­tion on the hai­bun—a Japan­ese mix­ture of prose and poet­ry — where­in a camp sur­vivor in Prague receives vis­its from her surly neigh­bor, who is also a survivor.

But the hai­bun is tra­di­tion­al­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, while this work is fic­tion, although uncer­tain­ties as to what is real and what is imag­ined per­vade the text. The pro­tag­o­nist, Anna Ash­er, is a woman dri­ven to write, but what exact­ly is she writ­ing, besides the includ­ed poems? It isn’t entire­ly clear. Mem­o­ries abound, but are they accu­rate? Anna con­tin­u­al­ly talks to her neigh­bor, but even­tu­al­ly she asks her read­ers what they would think if it turned out that this neigh­bor did not, in fact, actu­al­ly exist at all.

Anna leaves the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the neigh­bor is a fic­tion unre­solved in this hybrid text, which is a metafic­tion­al med­i­ta­tion on music, kab­bal­ah, the Song of Songs, remem­brance, fan­ta­sy, betray­al, and gov­ern­men­tal coop­er­a­tion. As in Spiegelman’s work, the lost moth­er — here, a bril­liant pianist — forms a recur­ring leit­mo­tif.

A chal­leng­ing, and deeply intel­lec­tu­al work, The Book of Anna con­tin­ues to press Theodor’s Adorno’s doubt about the pos­si­bil­i­ty of poet­ry after Auschwitz by ask­ing even more ques­tions. At once an inter­ro­ga­tion of inno­cence and the degree to which trau­ma can be healed, the book also affirms the absolute cru­cial­i­ty of writ­ing: In this world made of words, when I say Let there be light,” light is.”

Stephanie Bar­bé Ham­mer is a 7 time Push­cart Prize nom­i­nee in poet­ry, fic­tion, and non­fic­tion and is Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side. Her sec­ond nov­el Pre­tend Plumber will appear with Inlan­dia Books in Spring 2022

Discussion Questions

The Book of Anna is by turns har­row­ing and mes­mer­iz­ing, car­ry­ing the read­er for­ward through an alter­na­tion of lyric poems and prose diary entries, slow­ly reveal­ing Anna’s ado­les­cence in a con­cen­tra­tion camp and trac­ing her life through the fifties as she tries to find a new way to live in Sovi­et occu­pied Prague. Anna both seeks and is sought out, but noth­ing can ever ful­ly stitch her back into the fab­ric of the world – not friend­ship, not sex, not analy­sis, not work, not reli­gion, not myth, not pow­er. The trau­mat­ic echoes of what she has lost and how she has been bru­tal­ized rever­ber­ate across every­thing she thinks and does, and even at her most brazen and direct, a part of her remains behind in Bar­racks 10. Joy Ladin’s mas­ter­work demands our atten­tion in that it asks how one lives after the cri­sis has passed, not ask­ing how to sum­mon the will to live through the Shoah, but how to live with the knowl­edge that it hap­pened. In the after­word, Anna and Me,” Ladin recon­tex­tu­al­izes the book by not­ing that at the time of writ­ing, Anna rep­re­sent­ed some­one whose suf­fer­ings, unlike mine as a clos­et­ed trans per­son, would be read­i­ly rec­og­nized as worth writ­ing about.” Read through the lens of the after­word, this col­lec­tion asks read­ers to con­sid­er the rela­tion­ships between linked oppres­sions and presents a vital work of trans­gen­der Jew­ish poetics.