A book by Penny Busetto, winner of the European Union literary award and recently shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature, The Story of Anna P as Told By Herself is a simply written story of a complex yet simple South African woman living in an island in Italy and has no idea how she got there. It tells of Anna P’s routine life and her memory lapses.
Reflecting the present, past and future of Anna P, the novel is a rather mysterious one and at times surreal. The novel is an easy read with necessary and simple details and descriptions. It takes cognizance of the general scenery of Italy, Rome.
Just below the synopsis at the back of the book, important questions are posed: Who are we if we lose our memories? What does it mean to have no identity? And if we have no identity, no sense of ourselves, how can we make any ethical choices? These are the problems Anna P faces in the book.
The book is easily relatable to one experiencing a form of emptiness or loneliness as this is what the protagonist faces. Anna P finds that she is empty, and though she does not know why, she finds comfort in the hands of a sex worker; Sabrina.
Her daily routine includes going to work, a school where she has been a temporary English teacher for 20 years, taking long walks, feeding her bird and going to a Modugno’s a restaurant for dinner.
The routine is mildly disrupted when she gets a letter from the police station in Rome asking her to come down to the station. She does not go. She ignores the letter. Her fear is noticeable at this stage in the novel, but we do not know why she is so afraid. This is a low point for me in the novel. Even though I understand that it ignites some form of curiosity—suspense, it is very confusing. Although Busetto tried to hold her reader, I find this part of the book tedious. For all we know, Anna P could easily have been a woman who wanted love but could not get it—this or anything else can easily explain her emptiness or loneliness. The fear is hard to understand, so one can come to the conclusion that Anna P is simply a peculiar woman.
She does not go down to the station until she gets urgent calls from Ispettore Lupos. Lupos is very suspicious of her when she arrives at the station, almost accusing her of murder. We wonder why he is so suspicious, Anna P does not look like she could have even hurt a fly, even with all the mystery surrounding her.
Anna P is a reader. She loves to peer into the lives of people and so, she finds comfort in reading journals of those long deceased. She also finds comfort in Ugo, who it seems, is also emotionally unstable. Ugo is a young boy that she teaches. He is often bullied by his peers and beaten by his uncle. At some point, Anna P tries to reach out to him but he does not appreciate her effort. Thus, when Ugo tries to reach out to her, probably for help and soon starts stalking her, she ignores him. Her resolve soon weakens and she lets him into her life. She “connects emotionally” with Ugo and this is frowned upon by society. She is even called a whore.
One peculiar thing about Anna P is that she has sexual intercourse with male strangers, and even though we are not sure, it seems that eventually, these men end up dead, perhaps killed by her and somehow she has no memory of that. Questions, debates even, would be raised by the typical reader as to whether these encounters amount to rape. That is the kind of book the story of Anna P as told by herself is; it raises important questions.
Anna P seems to be indifferent about life. One of those people who move through life without a clear view of where they are going. It is worse For Anna P since she does not know much about her past.
The book is divided into three parts.
The first part of the book is written in first person and takes us through her life in Italy. The second part is written in second person and takes us down memory lane. The third part is written in third person and talks about the future.
The first part of the book, written as journal entries, leaves the reader confused as to why she allows men have their way with her. She does not push the hand of the man on the train that touches her knees and then traces his hand up her thighs and between her legs. It is very irrational.
Numerous research studies have documented the fact that there is a link between child abuse and mental illness in later life. The psychological impact of abuse on a child depends on a range of factors, including: the type of abuse, the severity of abuse, the relationship of the child to the abuser/s, the child’s family environment and his/her relationship with his/her parents or other caregivers, and whether the child has previous experiences of abuse, or a history of support, care and love. These factors can soften, or exacerbate, the impact of abuse on a child’s psychological wellbeing, and the likelihood that he or she will develop mental illness later in life. One of the psychological effects of child abuse, particularly incest, is Isolation; Incest victims feel different from other children. They are usually secretive. This even isolates them from non-offending parents and brothers and sisters. Childhood abuse, particularly chronic abuse beginning at an early age, is related to the development of high levels of dissociative symptoms including amnesia for abuse memories.
The second part of the book is described as Book of Memory. Not being able to remember in the first part was a cause of anxiety for Anna P, but in the second part of the book written as sessions, Anna P thinks about her childhood and we see how she was sexually molested by her father. We see how she killed her violent and abusive father, by pushing him down the stairs even though the death that came was not immediate. Luke, her cousin who is ten years older, also slept with her. The encounter is described as quick and shameful. It is during this time that Anna P suddenly stops talking.
“Words become impossible, and language a foreign land. Dangerous, incomprehensible, treacherous.”
“Language, she thinks, can’t really express what happened.”
Her mother does all she can to make her talk again, and when Anna P does not, she is sent off to Italy to study Italian. Before she can even begin her studies, she is abused again, constantly. And because she is mute, she does not say or do anything. Typically, rage should go through any reader. Why doesn’t she say something? But Penny Busetto succinctly captures the psychological impact of a young woman that has been abused. Through Anna P, Busetto has enabled readers to see how badly child abuse can affect adulthood.
When Anna P eventually starts talking, it seems all she wants to do is have fun. So she does; studying and changing courses, getting a boyfriend—Ahmed from Libya, having friends, driving around. This is a high point for me in the novel. From the beginning up until this point, it seems that Anna P is incapable of having some action and fun in her life. It seems that all that Anna P is fated for is doom. But at this point, we see the other things that mold her into the woman she is. It is easy for any reader to fall in love with this Anna P, and pray that she remains this way. But she does not. Things happen.
She meets a rich man who she had threesomes with. Though the sex is not explicit in her novel, Penny Busetto manages to capture the essence. Anna P has fun with this man but feels the urge to tell him about her childhood because there is a level where he does not exist, where she cannot let him in, where she is totally alone. She cannot bring herself to tell him. In a way she made her new lover’s memory of his childhood her own memory. It is described thus: “How is that possible? Memory is who you are. You can’t have someone else’s memories. But in a way, she almost did not exist.”
“She has no words to describe what she has been through, and no understanding of it either.”
Language and Memory are a big deal for Anna P.
When she eventually tells this new lover how she has been severally abused, he tells her she is mad, and this is what makes her leave for the Island. It is during this period with the rich man that her memory begins to elude her.
Book of the Future, the third part of the book, describes how Anna P ran away with Ugo. It is evident that the Police are looking for her—due to the killings she must have committed but it leaves the reader confused, inquisitive and needing closure. The book ends in the third part, leaving the reader with more questions and a few answers that are not easily acceptable
At the end of the book, one can describe the story of Anna P as told by herself as simply the journey of a woman who was sexually abused as a child.
This book creates an impression that will wander through the reader’s mind long after he has read it. Penny Busetto with this debut novel has written about a difficult issue in a beautiful lyrical way. It is delicate novel and will pull you into it.
The story of Anna P as told by herself contributes to our understanding of what it is to despair.