A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

  • Anthony Marra
  • Hogarth Press
  • 400 pp.

The fate of a young girl ties together various people living through 10 years of war in Chechnya.

Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, fully earns the promise of its title, taken from a dictionary definition of life. There is a pageant of stories and characters here that might have scattered into shapelessness had Marra not effectively drawn the whole into orbit around a simple central plot. In a remote Chechen hamlet, Akhmed, once a doctor, wants to save Havaa, a little girl, from murder by the Russian federals. Her fate is the novel’s central question, and the answer to it, and many others, are in the linked constellation of people and events Marra conjures.

When they take Havaa’s father, Dokka, the federals want to get rid of her also. But drunk and eager to get out of the cold and thinking she is inside the house, they torch it instead. As soon as their taillights have grown small, Akhmed, who saw the abduction, rushed to find Havaa hiding in the woods. He resolves to save her, and there is only one way: get her out of the village and out of sight of its resident informer. He takes her to what is left of Volchansk where he hopes a local surgeon will help. This careworn surgeon, Sonja, resists his imprecations: she won’t jeopardize the greater good she can do just to save one child’s life. The death, injury and loss she has seen have brought her to hew a hard calculus, a shell against feeling that protects her from her own tender loss.

Is this, then, a novel of war’s horror? A feel-bad chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man? It surprises by being quite the opposite, perhaps symbolized best by one of its more striking images, Dokka peeling the dry, hardened skin from a plum to reveal its moist, life-giving fruit. Set in Chechnya during the second Russian occupation, the novel cannot avoid atrocity and horror, but what Marra illuminates in its midst, using an abundance of anecdote and an eye for the slightest of gestures, is the humanity of its characters — their hopes and fears, joys and disappointments. This novel vibrates with life: these are not collections of victims and perpetrators but real people, stubbornly human, and every one, good or bad, has stories of his or her own worth hearing. Marra brings a humane, psychologically insightful sensibility to telling them.

The novel follows six primary characters, fleshing out their histories by moving over a decade, from 1994 to 2004. But hardly a page goes by that the author does not leave these six people and floats freely into digressions that shift to the past and future histories of the most peripheral characters and objects. These shifts, some half a sentence, others more than a page, are a striking feature of Marra’s architecture: not only are they constant reminders that countless other people live through these events, but they simultaneously fracture and unify the novel, creating an effect both of dislocation and a vast inter-webbing. They add an echoing depth to its themes.

This is an ambitious novel, one that stretches the form with its hyperlink style digressions and further, in the way it cross-cuts the story into two divisions of time: the five days of present time after which the novel’s three parts take their titles and the decade spanning its larger events, with a specific year noted in each chapter’s heading. The part titles keep the reader firmly oriented in the accelerating drama of Akhmed’s attempt to save Havaa, while the chapter headings with their year markings do the same for the needed infill around it. In an interview on NPR, Marra noted that for the Chechens, not only were their lives, limbs and families fractured (amputation is a recurring image); so were the stories these people needed to make sense of the world and even time itself. As the novel’s intricate construction progresses, there is a powerful sense of these fractured stories and their disrupted time being healed.

There are times (very few) when Marra burdens his dialogue with too much exposition, with too much need to explain history. And, even given the way he intentionally defies convention with his free-floating point-of-view shifts, some seem to stem more from authorial convenience than from necessity. Regardless, this novel is a tour de force, and what small imperfections it has stem from its ambition. Marra accomplishes what seems almost impossible, bringing a thousand stories together in a way that is both heart shattering and hopeful, filled with compassion for the pain and loss depicted, and filled with respect for the people in its pages. One has to think that it is this kind of writing, this kind of novel, that may be the antidote to the blind impulses that cause such brutal wars in the first place.

Rimas Blekaitis lives in Washington, D.C, and reads and writes wherever he finds himself. He recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


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