The Invention of Ana
by Mikkel Rosengaard
translated from the Danish by Caroline Waight
Custom House, 2018
At the beginning of Mikkel Rosengaard's deceptively strange debut novel (published in 2016 as Forestillinger om Ana Ivan and now translated into English by Caroline Waight as The Invention of Ana), a young intern and aspiring writer, newly arrived from Denmark and working at a Brooklyn arts festival, is surrounded by partygoers as he looks across the river at the city where he hopes to make his fortune:
I went to the bar instead, got a glass of wine, and stared at the island across the river, where thousands of people were swarming out of the towers onto the streets, full of thoughts and dreams I knew nothing about but which could soon be opened to me. That's the way I thought back then. I'd be dissolved into the city, and with a lightness in my chest I stared at the shiny panes of glass and the people behind them, people who'd soon be sharing in my memories …
It's an oddly voyeuristic opening note, our unnamed narrator (who'll later refer to himself offhandedly and sincerely as a “shadow of a man”) so avidly confessing his intention to leech off the stories of others. And the note becomes dominant in the moment, because on that Brooklyn rooftop the intern meets a beguiling Romanian woman named Ana Ivan, who immediately begins telling him the many stories of her life and the life of her family living under the dictatorship of Nicholae Ceaușescu. Ana practices time travel; Ana has a long and checkered love life; Ana believes she's cursed; Ana was once briefly dead for two minutes. In short order, she has completely entranced the young intern, completely co-opted his imagination and given form to his nebulous yearnings to be a writer. Whenever the young man isn't with Ana (walking, sharing breakfast at diners, a series of scenes tangentially and wonderfully evoking New York), he's busily transforming her stories into his art. “I wrote late into the night, sitting at my computer or standing by the kettle in the kitchen, watching myself from the outside: A young man bent over his desk in the dusty glow of a lamp, poor and sleepless, as though living only for the text,” he confesses, in one of the book's many moments of dislocation. “A stereotypical image, of course, but one that made me dash back and write another page, filled with a shining or youthful or idiotic light that burned in the middle of my chest.”
As Ana's stories deepen and darken, they begin to take over the intern's own life and identity. It's a narrative gambit that should right away begin yielding diminishing returns, since it effectively shifts the bulk of the book's action and drama into the subjunctive. Our narrator is a succubus; he's not wrong when he refers to himself as a shadow, and despite his increasingly desperate dependence on Ana, he never really fleshes out in relation to her or to anybody else in the book.
But somehow this doesn't scupper the book, and the means of salvation is obvious: Ana herself. Her story – her many stories – so thoroughly command the book that, tellingly, they warp the internal reality of Rosengaard's narrative, and they would lose a large amount of their power if Ana told them directly to us herself. They would lose their element of folkloric quasi-reality. As the novel stands now, the invention of Ana is ongoing.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com