‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,’ by Anthony Marra

Prisoners of the Caucasus
‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,’ by Anthony Marra
NYT | June 7, 2013

Anthony Marra’s extraordinary first novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” opens with a disappearance typical of postmodern warfare, cobbled to an image completely alien to it: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” This fusion of the desperate with the whimsical sets the tone.


By Anthony Marra
384 pp. Hogarth. $26.

In the background are the Chechen wars, a staggeringly destructive pair of conflicts pitting the army of post-Soviet Russia against Chechen guerrillas who were sometimes supported by visiting Arab jihadis. Marra’s timeline runs from 1994 to 2004, but the larger story is much, much deeper. This novel is, among other things, a meditation on the use and abuse of history, and an inquiry into the extent to which acts of memory may also constitute acts of survival.

For Marra’s characters, the odds against survival are high. The disappearance of Havaa’s father comes near the end of a 10-year sequence of similar events that have devastated the tiny village of Eldar. But for the time being, 8-year-old Havaa is saved by a neighbor, Akhmed, who walks her to the reluctant care of the last doctor in the bomb-shattered hospital of the nearby city of Volchansk.

Sonja, the doctor, is an ethnic Russian whose grandparents moved to Volchansk as part of the Stalinist colonization of the region. She is so skilled and resourceful she can successfully stitch a gaping chest wound with dental floss. Akhmed, an ethnic Chechen, is a drastically underqualified doctor with a talent for drawing, who has spent his life in such extreme isolation that he has Ronald McDonald mixed up with Ronald Reagan. Yet the lives of both are tormented by loss.

Akhmed’s wife has been in a vegetative state since the Russian military first ravaged Eldar. Havaa’s father was his closest friend. Fundamentally incompetent to stem the flow of medical trauma that war brings to his village, Akhmed has taken to painting portraits of the dead and the vanished and hanging them around the neighborhood — one of a number of semi-surreal acts of remembrance the novel has to offer. Sonja, meanwhile, is desperate to find her sister, who has disappeared from Volchansk (for a second time) about a year before. The delicate web of connection among these characters takes the novel’s whole length to reveal itself.

During their childhood, Sonja is the smart sister, Natasha the pretty one. With Sonja in a London medical school and both their parents dead, Natasha finds herself alone as Volchansk begins to collapse in the escalation of the first Chechen war. Aware that despite her Russian ethnicity she’ll fare ill in the oncoming Russian invasion, she becomes the agent of her own first disappearance, turning herself over to a broker of “au pairs.” Though she knows she’ll really become a prostitute, Natasha still hopes this maneuver may help her rejoin Sonja in London. “Make me an au pair,” she tells her sex trafficker. “Make me reappear.”

But chances of reappearance in wartime are thin. Bargaining with Sonja for Havaa’s shelter, Akhmed volunteers his services to the shattered hospital — staffed only by Sonja and a single nurse, with whom Akhmed sorts the clothing of the dead. They discover a note with instructions for burial sewn into a pair of trousers, but the nurse tells Akhmed the owner is “already in the clouds” of the city crematorium. When Akhmed (who has a similar note in one of his own seams) wants to pursue the matter, she shows him a box of identity documents “layered eight deep. . . . ‘He’s one of these,’ she said.” This peripheral victim has disappeared before the reader ever met him, to be remembered only by the novelist, who spins out a thin strand of his story: “That man had a sister in Shali who would have given her travel agency, . . . her parents-in-law and nine-tenths of her immortal soul to hold that note now lying at the bottom of the trash can, if only to hold the final wish of the brother she regretted giving so little for in life.”

The novel is peppered with these short detours into the pasts or futures of characters who momentarily cross paths with the principals. It’s one of Marra’s ways of holding the value of human wishes against their vanity. There’s a constant impulse to retrieve and affirm what was, though acts of remembrance are themselves evanescent. Akhmed contemplates his demented wife: “As a web is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what was no longer there.” His portraits of the lost dissolve quickly to “no more than two eyes, a nose and a mouth fading between the trees.” Natasha, briefly reunited with her sister in Volchansk between the two wars, painstakingly draws, where a window once was, the view that existed before the landscape was reduced to rubble. The suitcase Havaa saves from her burning house is full of relics of the refugees her father used to shelter. These become meaningless for want of a provenance, except for a Buckingham Palace guard nutcracker, once given to Natasha by Sonja, then to Havaa by Natasha during her second flight from Volchansk (hoping this time to outdistance heroin addiction).

Another of Akhmed’s neighbors decides finally to burn his “six-­volume, 3,300-page historical survey of the Chechen lands,” telling Akhmed: “History writes itself. It doesn’t need my assistance.” His personal history includes his having brought home the bones of his parents in a suitcase during the 1956 repatriation of exiled Chechens from Kazakhstan, and the fact that his son is the informer who brought about the disappearance of Havaa’s father, among many others, and will eventually inform on Akhmed as well.

This son (for whom Marra creates a surprising amount of sympathy) tells Akhmed close to the end: “They won’t ask you where the girl is. They will make you bring her to them, and you will watch yourself do it. . . . Once I was like you, and soon you will be like me.” Here is the most dreadful disappearance of all: destruction of the self under torture. This novel plentifully displays the very worst of human capability. In the interrogation pits somewhere between Volchansk and Eldar, fingers and testicles chopped off with bolt cutters are only the beginning.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Under the rain of atrocity it portrays, this novel’s generally optimistic tone can sometimes seem downright bizarre. Some other recent works have adopted this attitude of infinite resignation (“The Known World,” by Edward P. Jones, and “Half of a Yellow Sun,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name two), but Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy, whose Chechnya-set novel, “Hadji Murad,” is mentioned several times in this one. “Constellation” might be a 21st-­century “War and Peace,” except, as the informer warns, there’s no real peace available: “They will kill Havaa and call it peace.”

While reminding us of the worst of the war-torn world we live in, Marra finds sustainable hope in the survival of a very few, and in the regenerative possibility of life in its essential form, defined by a medical textbook passage that Sonja and Natasha read at different times. In her darkest moments, Sonja sees her life as “an uneven orbit around a dark star, a moth circling a dead bulb,” but against that image is the textbook definition: “a constellation of vital phenomena — organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently “The Color of Night.”




Tolstoy Influence Felt In U.S. Chechen Book
By Carolina Starin
The Moscow Times | Jul. 09 2014

Anthony Marra’s novel “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” which made The New York Times’ bestseller list, is based in Chechnya and follows a series of characters in an often bloody and brutal book.


Q: The New York Times’ review calls your book a “21st-century ‘War and Peace.’” Was Tolstoy an influence?

A: Tolstoy was certainly an influence. He can write about Napoleon or he can write about a peasant in the provinces and he treats both subjects with the same seriousness and the same emotional and intellectual rigor. When I went to Chechnya, I would ask people who their favorite author was, and Tolstoy was the answer nine times out of 10. It struck me as peculiar that among these people whose one defining national characteristic historically has been defiance of Russia that the quintessential Russian novelist would so often pop up among their favorite writers.

A response that I heard repeatedly was that Tolstoy treated everyone like people. In “Hadji Murad,” he wrote about Chechens and he treated them like human beings. I think that being able to treat a character like a human being is something I really admire in Tolstoy’s work and tried to embody in my own.

Q: There are points in the book where I had to kind of read with one eye, like closing your eyes during a violent movie. What was it like to write about such difficult subjects?

A: I was sitting at my desk in a comfortable middle-class life in America, whereas real people did suffer these indignities. I feel like as a writer you can never ever correlate the experience of writing about something with the experience of enduring it, especially when it comes to atrocity. Maybe this is on my mind a little bit more because on Saturday night I spent the night talking with a Chechen. His brother worked for Reuters and he was involved with helping his brother smuggle footage out. He was eventually captured and was put in a pit for six weeks. He was brutally tortured and was later shot alongside his brother. His brother died and he survived and now he lives in America, but the idea that the experience of writing anything, or reading anything, will ever match the experience of actually enduring it just isn’t the case.

Q: Would you say your book is political?

A: As soon as you start writing fiction with the idea that you are trying to convince a reader of a particular political viewpoint, in most cases, the fiction begins to fail. As readers we are all highly attuned and sensitive to any sort of propaganda. As soon as literature gears in that direction, it stops being about the people on the page and starts being about political ideas in a way that may be unconstructive in creating a work of art. I think it is probably pretty clear where my sympathies lie when reading the novel, but I thought it was really important to write the book without laying any sort of judgment. I think if you simply tell the story of what life was like there, it is pretty hard not to jump to the conclusion that life for a civilian in Chechnya was terrible because of these wars. These wars were acts of genocide and the level of depravity and horror that everyday people were subjected to on a daily basis was reprehensible. I feel like that as a citizen or as a person. But as a writer of fiction I felt like it was my job to simply stick to these characters’ stories and let readers make up their own mind.

Q: You credit Anna Politkovskaya’s “A Small Corner of Hell” as a source for your book. In what way?

A: She was an incredibly courageous journalist and writer and she would repeatedly put herself in grave risk to report. While she went after big fish, again and again you would see in her work that she was telling the stories of lives that were too small, the dramas that are too intimate to ever make the front-page headlines. Often in these sorts of wars we see it as a bunch of rebels and a bunch of soldiers shooting at one another when, in fact, there is this broad mid-section of the population that is struggling to survive between these equally brutal factions. She was a remarkable person and someone whose work will long outlive her.



Excerpt from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya.

A resilient doctor risks everything to save the life of a hunted child, in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together.

In Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels. Across the road their lifelong neighbor and family friend Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house. But when he finds her hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.

For the talented, tough-minded Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. And she has a deeply personal reason for caution: harboring these refugees could easily jeopardize the return of her missing sister. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weave together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Book Excerpt


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