Story Thieves: On Carmen Boullosa’s “The Book of Eve”
By Godelieve de BreeOctober 29, 2023
The Book of Eve by Carmen Boullosa
Carmen Boullosa’s 2020 novel The Book of Eve, translated by Samantha Schnee and published by Deep Vellum this March, is a first-person account of the story of Genesis told from Eve’s perspective. Boullosa’s book puts forward a necessary corrective concerned with the nature of truth: who dictates it, how it is accepted as such, and the ways in which a culture is built around that truth. A leading Mexican literary figure, Boullosa has over 30 publications to her name including poetry, plays, essays, and novels, many of which are concerned with gender roles. Her next most recent release, 2016’s The Book of Anna (tr. Samantha Schnee, Coffee House Press, 2020), pays tribute to Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, reenvisioning Tolstoy’s 1878 story with a feminist approach that is central to Boullosa’s work.
The Book of Eve joins a relatively modern tradition of feminist reimaginings of biblical stories. Previous entries into this emerging canon include Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent (1997), which tells Dinah’s story from her own perspective; Michal Lemberger’s After Abel and Other Stories (2015), a series of nine short narratives told from the perspectives of different women in the Bible; and Colm Tóibín’s novella The Testament of Mary (2012), wherein Mary reflects on her life. These books display an evident concern with the silence itself: how are women raised in the cultures that stem from these scriptures supposed to see themselves, and understand their positions within those societies, if their stories, and perspectives, aren’t represented? In this vein, Boullosa’s Eve is transformed from a subservient symbol to a figure who independently seeks out her own creative and sexual pleasures.
Boullosa’s rewriting is compelling in large part because it is a complete subversion of the biblical original rather than a quibbling hinged on slight discrepancies. From its opening lines, the text asserts its marked difference from Genesis—first by establishing that it was Eve who preceded Adam (“Before me, all was Chaos”), later explaining that “[t]he commonly accepted hypothesis about Adam and the clay and the breath is wrong—and I’m going to reveal its malicious origin.” That this “malicious origin” turns out to be Adam is unsurprising. Many such features of Genesis are different in Eve’s version of events: Eden isn’t a luscious, ripe garden but a “confined, restricted space” where nature is “absent”; Cain is gentle and homely while Abel is malevolent and cruel. The stories of Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel are also briefly repositioned and retold.
Where Eve is gifted a rich internal life, Adam is one-dimensional and pathetic until he proves to be downright degenerate. Through the first half of the book, he is described as a docile, supplementary idiot: “His presence began to annoy me, but I couldn’t just leave him.” It’s a predictable but effective subversion of traditional gender dynamics. Eve’s empowerment into sexuality, pregnancy, and the birth of Cain and Abel bring about a marked change in Adam of which Eve is more than aware: “What about him? Who and what was he? He realized he had been supplanted. He gave up.” The female body’s ability to nurture life independent from him provokes an imagined inferiority in Adam, and in an overcompensatory measure, the familiar mechanics of male violence emerge.
A barbarous dynamic forms within the family unit. When Adam discovers Abel raping his sibling Adah, Abel’s protestation is a familiar attempt at circumventing responsibility: “It’s not my fault; this part of my body acted of its own accord.” They both then proceed to rape Adah.
This leads me onto one of the most puzzling features of the book—the sudden disappearance of Eve’s integrity. Despite her witnessing the horrors of the rape, she doesn’t “want to think about the violence” in its aftermath or “let it mar the new day,” so she “set[s] to eliminating all traces of it.” This unexpected avoidance feels out of character for an Eve who has previously been boisterous and forthright, while in this odious environment a “lie” previously concocted by Adam—what will become the narrative of Genesis as we know it—begins to gain power. At the peak of misogynistic violence in the text, the motivations behind Eve’s sudden silence, both about Adah’s rape and Adam’s lie, are unclear and inconsistent: “He said I was not the first woman. That there was another before me, whom he witnessed being created, also made from a part of his body. […] That, too, is untrue. I kept my silence.”
Later, aware of her complicity, Eve reflects: “Adam’s version of events had won”; his story had “gathered power in the way of ‘this is our tradition.’” Boullosa seems to be arguing that the forces that have created and continue to perpetuate dominant patriarchal narratives are passivity and a lack of critical attention to the mythologies that have been foundational in creating Western cultures: the story of Genesis in her rendition is, in essence, a man’s self-soothing coping mechanism.
In conversation with Schnee at the UTD Center for Translation Studies, Boullosa speaks to the power of stories: “they shape our way of—not only of understanding the world, our feeling, our convictions […] Telling stories is very dangerous, and very important, and very fertile.” The danger of every story is its underbelly: the unattended, untold story, the fertility of a story—its potential to open new understandings and perspectives. The Book of Eve is written with both the violent and hopeful potential of stories in mind.
The form of the novel, 10 books interspersed with “loose papers,” creates an engaging sense of the text as already integrated into biblical discourse. Boullosa, aware of the contentious nature of the book’s premise, preempts a recognizable response of suspicion with an imagined prologue by Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century nun known as the first woman to be named doctor of the church, referring to the text as “crude” and “sheer nonsense.” As well as commenting on just how pervasive religious mythologies are, Boullosa seems to be reflecting on validity—how apparently, after all, women and their version of events are not to be taken seriously. The “loose pages” add depth of perspective, while speaking to the contentious discourse of biblical studies, and are successful in confusing the narrative—adding detail and generating conflicting perspectives—but become, particularly in the second half of the novel, chaotic and disorderly.
As the novel progresses, it descends into a cacophony of voices, opinions, and conflicting truths. One of the novel’s most illuminating moments occurs in a “loose paper” written by one of Eve’s daughters: “Eve always changes the truth, insisting upon her version. What she has told us is incorrect. […] What I’m telling you is the truth. Everything else was whipped up by Eve.” In these few lines, the entire story is undermined, the believability of any character thrown off-kilter. This preoccupation with veracity and falsehood is a consistent feature, and despite its imaginative accomplishment, The Book of Eve’s tone verges, at times, on a defensive protestation. In earlier chapters, a removed audience speaks into the book, questioning the prevailing beliefs about Genesis. “And the serpent, Eve?” the audience asks, to which she responds with the “truth”: “Serpent? No, there was no serpent either!”
This conversational element, however, disappears. An absence of any allusion to the original story of Genesis would have, in my opinion, been more effective; Eve’s awareness of, and continuous referencing of, the original story of Genesis (“slanderous drivel” or a “malicious lie”) creates a narrative that can feel too concerned with debunking Adam’s version of events.
Boullosa is a playful writer whose prose is rich but unrelenting. Schnee’s translation is tactful in creating a biblical tone, with occasional anachronisms; “sweetie,” for instance, makes a singular, confusing appearance. Despite a musicality—the rain is, for example, “[t]orrential, terrible, jubilant, resonant, magnanimous”—many of the descriptions feel dense, reiterative, and repetitive; the writing often circles itself, making slow narrative progress. I enjoyed a mischievous subversion of Freud’s theory of “penis envy” to “Clitoris Envy” wherein Eve discovers and independently pursues masturbatory pleasure, while Adam at that point only has a fold of skin that is “inert” and “completely useless.”
Late in the novel, Eve refers to both Adam and Noah as “story thieves,” concisely verbalizing the issues of patriarchal authority the book seeks to rectify. Not only have men robbed women of their own narratives; they have also appropriated and retold them to benefit their own interests. Essential in reconsidering a foundational Judeo-Christian story, The Book of Eve is doing the fundamental work of reimagining the internal life of a woman who has scarcely been afforded one.
Godelieve de Bree is a Dutch American writer living in London. She has had her work published by Tate and was a member of the 2022–23 Roundhouse Poetry Collective.
Godelieve de Bree is a Dutch American writer living in London. She has had her work published by Tate and was a member of the 2022–23 Roundhouse Poetry Collective. She can be found on Twitter @godelievedebree.
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