Anthony Marra - Sonja is deep into her career amputating mine-shattered limbs. She has learned how to treat pain with heroin rather than morphine because it’s easier to buy on the black market. She is one of three people running a hospital that should be staffed by 500
Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Random House, 2013.
Two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together. “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, eight years old, hides in the woods and watches the blaze until her neighbor, Akhmed, discovers her sitting in the snow. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, and there is no safe place to hide a child in a village where informers will do anything for a loaf of bread, but for reasons of his own, he sneaks her through the forest to the one place he thinks she might be safe: an abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded. Though Sonja protests that her hospital is not an orphanage, Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weaves together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate.
The emergence of a new writer is something of a compelling magic, where as readers, we’re trying to understand when else we’ve heard such an enrapturing voice, pulling referentially for the sound, the imagination, the cadence of already beloved writers. However, the most definitive writers—the kind that tear the fabric of literature at the seam—stitch us inside a pocket all their own. Anthony Marra is the infinite pressure we’ve been waiting to be sewn into, and, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is the debut of the year.
A Constellation swings across a ten-year period following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, surveying the direct and indirect effects of the First and Second Chechen Wars from 1994 to 2004. The setting in which our characters are fixed then, are the scaffolds of a country rebuilding, in hiding, in wintry depression, but each one carries his or her daring possibility against these breaking rifts of history and landscape.
Though it remains tethered to its present day era of 2004, the story revisits the enlacing lives of several characters in the region of Volchansk. It is in this small village that we are introduced to Akhmed, the town’s only, yet heavily incompetent, physician/portraitist, as he rescues the precocity that dwells inside his neighbor’s daughter, Havaa. After Havaa’s father is taken by Russian aggressors who were tipped off by another neighbor turned informant, Akhmed rescues the girl, and flees through the broken escarpments of the Chechen mine fields. Lacking options, Akhmed resolves to take the girl to the only hospital in the area to meet a surgeon, Sonja, who he’s long revered, but has never met. It is on the arrival to the hospital that Marra begins to course the inevitably painful circumstances that bound his characters heart to hand.
Of course, this is only the frontward facade of A Constellation; the navigable arcades are where the contents of the novel glisten painfully into an oil you can’t wash away. Marra writes with exceptional presence, using every character he invents, tying off even the ones that appear for only a few sentences:
Natasha held back her hair as she lit a cigarette from the hot plate her father had, twelve years earlier, purchased secondhand from a woman who would never find a flame that cooked an egg quite as well . . . The driver had grown up in a mountain hamlet where more people believed in trolls than in automobiles. The first war had catapulted him from the back of a mule to the inside of a Mercedes, and he would look back at that war as the one stroke of good fortune in a life otherwise riddled with disappointments.
The needlecraft of these intermittent characters remind the reader of the simultaneity of time, how eras, bad and good, still scrawl onward in every direction, and this method enlivens us with the present moment as we transition between the decade the book expresses; moreover, these subsets are condensed jack-in-a-boxes of imagination.
Here’s another example:
When asked she couldn’t provide a coherent description of her pain. It was like a loose marble tumbling around her insides, migrating from her ankle to her knee to her hip, and back down . . . her heart, as if drawn on a piece of paper in her chest, crumpled every time . . . He had memorized the entire Qur’an and lectured on the nature of evil, which, like a shadow, cannot exist independently of the good it silhouettes . . . the circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed.
Of course, Marra’s prose is less the arrangement or prowess of imagination, and far more the echoes of an era and place where there has been little recognition, and far less understanding. Marra ruminates upon the historic record of elaborately savage torture, castration, amputation, rape eased through heroin addiction, and he employs these accounts with the same emotional onus he offers to state censorship, to the bedridden, to even the efforts of the torturers, all the while pursuing the reader with dizzying humor. If any discredit can come to A Constellation, it’s that we can only receive it with our eyes, and not in another expression:
At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it. - Scott Gloden
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.
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
Anthony Marra’s debut novel describes the interlinked lives of a Chechen girl, aged eight in 2004, a man in her village who looks after her when her father is killed, and a surgeon in a nearby city. Their lives are surrounded by the difficulties of a long, vicious war.
A neighbour is an informer, having earlier been castrated by Russian troops. A sister flees to Europe and is forced into prostitution and drug addiction. Drugs for the hospital are only available via a black market. Soldiers lie in wait on roads leading anywhere; mines litter the ground, and straying off the road could kill you.
Chechnya is a subject that has slipped out of the news, and the war there has largely ended, but the Russian region remains far from anything we would recognise as normal. Although this book is fiction, it is based on first-hand accounts of the fighting.
In his notes, Marra describes this source material as “essential and courageous testimony”, and anyone familiar with Chechnya will recognise large passages that are closely based on work by non-fiction writers, including Anna Politkovskaya and Andrew Meier.
There’s nothing wrong with this (Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty does something similar to spectacular effect). But Marra’s characters never seem to inhabit the borrowed scenes, which feel separate to the rest of his narrative. Indeed, by moving the descriptions from when they took place to the years required by his plot, and by placing them in an imaginary city, he divorces them from any relevance to what was actually happening. This surely undermines whatever he was trying to do by setting the novel in modern Chechnya in the first place.
The characters regularly refer to another book about the Caucasus, Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat. Marra is thus placing himself in a long tradition of writing that also includes Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov. Inviting comparison with such masters is a risk that Marra should perhaps have avoided. Tolstoy treats the tragedies of the wars in Russia’s south with respect, allowing them to speak for themselves. Marra uses them as backdrop for a novel that could have been placed anywhere, and I found the Chechens’ suffering being used as scenery rather troubling. - Oliver Bullough
One of the crueller ironies of war is that the best novels about them are often told by people who weren’t on the front lines. Thomas Pynchon served in the Navy, but well after World War II, the conflict that infuses “Gravity’s Rainbow” with terror.
In “Schindler’s Ark’’ the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally conjured the Holocaust’s horrors 40 years after the fact by pulling on a thread of history.
In his debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” Anthony Marra, an American from Oakland, Calif., grabs one of the thorniest threads of recent Russian history and weaves a powerful tale.
Set between 1994 and 2004 in Chechnya, when Russia went to the war with the breakaway republic, it is a story, like Keneally’s, about the intersection of opportunism and kindness in armed conflict.
Marra’s two heroes are doctors working in a war-ravaged hospital. As the book opens, Sonja, an ethnic Russian, is deep into her career amputating mine-shattered limbs. She has learned how to treat pain with heroin rather than morphine because it’s easier to buy on the black market. She is one of three people running a hospital that should be staffed by 500.
Akhmed is a former art school student who barely passed his medical exams. During the first Russian invasion, he plied his former skills more successfully, drawing the faces of the missing for anguished mothers. One day he is pressed into service by a rebel general held together by stitches of dental floss. It is Sonja’s handiwork.
The forces that bring these two characters together are brutal and hard to forget. Russian authorities abduct Akhmed’s neighbor and return him without fingers — which were lopped off by bolt cutters. Another neighbor’s son has become an informant, and it is his greed that sets the book in motion.
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is densely imagined, and yet cinematic in the after-image. The moment Akhmed walks into the hospital with Havaa, the young daughter of his FINGERLESS AND NOW dead neighbor, and presses the girl into Sonja’s care rivals anything Michael Ondaatje has written in its emotional force.
Trust, in a world riddled by betrayal, develops slowly between Akhmed and Sonja. Havaa is the bridge. Both doctors are missing someone, and they latch on to the little girl with the emotional opportunism of the grieving.
This story would have been enough for a novel, but Marra is not a small-book writer. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” bulges with side plots and characters. Just when you think the book is through introducing people, we meet more.
Everyone is suffering a loss. Khassan, father of the informant, has spent his life writing a million-word history of Chechnya, which has lived in one form of foreign rule or other since the 15th century.
When the war begins he burns it and starts telling a private story for his offspring in the hope they’ll live in a future where ancient history needn’t be submerged.
As in Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” Marra’s characters keep themselves alive by telling and listening to stories. Akhmed spins yarns to his friend’s dying wife. During the invasion of Chechnya, Natasha, Sonja’s sister who later goes missing, reads the first published volume of Khassan’s Chechen history.
There are perhaps too many coincidences to be sustained. The novel also zigzags needlessly across time. Every other chapter unfolds in 1994 or 2004, and in those same chapters are flashbacks. War indeed ruptures time; in fact, Marra reminds that when Chechnya broke away it established its own time zone. Still, fewer jumps would have allowed this book to build a sense of momentum.
There is one benefit to the murky pace of “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” It is easy to enjoy Marra’s ability to create an image. This book teems with gorgeously depicted terrible things. A mother asleep in war-time dark knows which child she is holding by the widths of THE CHILD’S fingers. Unexploded shells are covered with looted toilet bowls.
Again and again Marra honors the atrocity of war with specificity. At the hospital, after an amputation, one man’s “stump poked from the edge of the white bedsheet like a rotten log through snow cover.”
At one point, Sonja has a suspicion that Akhmed is an informer. She takes him to a warehouse where he has about five seconds to say the right thing AS A GUARD PRESSES A GUN INTO HIS SPINE. His thought: “He didn’t want to die before an audience of stolen refrigerators.”
There is very little that can redeem senseless killing — God or dark humor. For many of the characters they are the same thing. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” horrifies and then shows how it is possible to laugh at horror with resilience and adaptation.
“Don’t insult me,” a smuggler tells Sonja when she asks whether she can really get the items she needs. “I can steal the spots off a snow leopard.”
There are many reasons to read “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” To enter the tragedy of Caucasus history that has been dishonored by THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS, ALLEGEDLY COMMITTED BY TWO ETHNIC CHECHEN IMMIGRANTS ; to marvel at the lack of fear in a writer so young. To read a book that can bring tears to your eyes and force laughter from your lungs. These are all astonishing things for a book written because its author was surprised to discover a novel about Chechnya didn’t exist in English. But the one I kept returning to, the best reason to read this novel, is that this story reminds us how senseless killing often wrenches kindness through extreme circumstances. - John Freeman
Seeing Chechnya’s Wonders, Long Before Getting There By CHARLES McGRATH
Six years after starting to think about Chechnya, the disputed Russian republic that became the setting for his acclaimed new novel, Anthony Marra visited for the first time last summer, signing up on the Internet for something called “The Seven Wonders of Chechnya Tour.”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said recently. “It could have been a gigantic scam, but as it turned out, I could not have been treated better.” He traveled with a guide and talked to Chechens, many of whom, he said, were still trying to recover from years of war and occupation.
While in Chechnya, though, Mr. Marra discovered that he had made a factual error in the book, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” (Hogarth), which was published this month: The first escalator there was not installed until 2007, when it became a sort of tourist attraction.
So Mr. Marra had to do some escalator-elimination in the final draft. Otherwise, he found that his knowledge of Chechnya, gleaned mostly from books, held up. From journalistic accounts, he learned details like how the Chechens would upend toilet bowls over unexploded artillery shells. For a grisly amputation scene, he read medical journals and watched YouTube videos.
“Research is not an obstacle, something to be frightened of,” Mr. Marra said. “It can be one of the real joys of writing. Someone once said, ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.’ ”
He added: “But to make a book convincing, it’s less important that the right tree be in the right place than that the characters are emotionally real. I did the best I could to make the environment and the setting as realistic as possible, but I hope it’s the characters and the emotional reality that make the book true.”
Mr. Marra is 28, but seems simultaneously older and younger. He has an earnest, boyish manner, yet his hair is already flecked with gray. He has yet to finish writing school — he’s finishing up the second year of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford — but has already published a book, and, unusual for a first novel, it’s purely a work of research and invention, without even a hint of autobiography.
Until the Boston Marathon bombings most Americans paid little attention to Chechnya. Over lunch at a Midtown restaurant recently, Mr. Marra said that his own interest began during an undergraduate semester studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2006. He arrived not long after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who exposed Russian atrocities in Chechnya. At a metro stop near his apartment, he would see Russian veterans of the Chechen wars hanging out, drinking and begging for change.
“Chechnya was sort of in the ether then,” he said, “but I realized that like most Americans, I didn’t know the first thing about it. I didn’t know where it was on the map. I didn’t know a single person who had ever been there. I wasn’t even sure how to spell Chechnya.”
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” — the title comes from the definition of “life” in a Russian medical dictionary — mostly takes place during just five days in 2004, during the second Chechen war, but every other chapter toggles back to 10 years earlier, during the first war, and within the chapters there are flashbacks and sometimes flash-forwards to a time decades in the future.
The novel tells several interlocking stories, mostly about ordinary Chechens simply trying to stay out of the way of the Russian occupiers, on the one hand, and the rebel insurgents, on the other; it’s a tossup which faction is more brutal. The main characters are a pair of doctors — one famously incompetent, the other a resolute female surgeon trying to keep an abandoned hospital going practically by herself — who are protecting a young girl from Russians who have already abducted her father.
Dwight Garner, writing in The New York Times, called the book “ambitious and intellectually restless.” Another fan is Sarah Jessica Parker, who in a review for Entertainment Weekly described it as “full of humanity and hope.”
One of Mr. Marra’s teachers at Stanford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Adam Johnson, said that he arrived on campus “fully formed.”
“I don’t know how much credit we can take for Tony,” Mr. Johnson said. “Most people his age are still learning the conventions, the traditions, the craft, and here he is leveraging the full power of the novel. When I was writing my first novel I was struggling with conventional realism, traditional structure, but he has abandoned all that right out of the gate. He looks like a very mature writer, with profound concerns, at the height of his powers.”
Mr. Marra grew up in Washington, where both his parents were corporate lawyers. He was an unambitious, “solid B” student, he said, smiling, and didn’t discover novels until he was caddying one summer at a country club in Chevy Chase, Md., and needed to pass the time waiting in the caddy yard for a loop.
He took a year off between high school and college, during which he worked in a U.P.S. store, missed his girlfriend and began writing short stories about a lovelorn guy working in the same store. “One of them had three pages on a single kiss,” he said.
But Mr. Marra no longer has much interest in autobiographical fiction. “I quickly realized I live the least interesting literary life imaginable,” he said. “My parents are happily married. There haven’t been any major traumas. I’m not sure that the story of my life would be much fun to read.”
While an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, he began writing a historical novel, 250 words a day, about, of all things, Bobby Sands and the 1981 hunger strike at Long Kesh. “It will never see the light of day,” Mr. Marra said emphatically, but added that the book sprang from a preoccupation with religious and political violence.
“I was a junior in high school when 9/11 happened,” he explained, “and I’ve spent my entire adult life in a world where terror is present in a way it may not have been before.” He used to assume that political and sectarian conflicts were things that happened in faraway places, he added, and writing about Northern Ireland granted him access to a place that seemed closer to home.
When he started learning about Chechnya, what interested him were the stories of people who were neither political nor sectarian. They came to include the proprietor of a museum dedicated to the memory of Tolstoy, who visited Chechnya in 1851. It was one of the sites Mr. Marra visited on his long-awaited tour.
“The proprietor guarded it with a shotgun from the Chechens and the Russian soldiers both,” he recalled. “The place has no historical significance and there’s no evidence that Tolstoy ever set foot there. But it’s a place where stories can live. You get the sense that by preserving this place as a sanctuary for stories, the family that ran it was able to save themselves.”
“I was deeply moved by the Chechens who were just trying to retain their humanity,” Mr. Marra added. “A lot of them are still trying to recover.”