Weekend Read: With novel 'Constellation,' Anthony Marra makes phenomenal debut

San Francisco ChronicleMay 9, 2013 

  • BOOK REVIEW

    'A Constellation of Vital Phenomena'

    By Anthony Marra

    Hogarth. 384 pp. $26.

Given the background of the suspects in the tragic events in Boston, it would be easy to champion Anthony Marra's first novel as a way to understand a suddenly newsworthy country and people, but this beautiful work will matter long after Chechnya has disappeared from our headlines.

Marra, winner of a Whiting Award, studied in Russia during college and traveled through the Caucasus. "For all the nonfiction I tracked down," he told Publishers Weekly, "I was unable to find any English-language novels set in contemporary Chechnya. I felt that the stories I'd read and heard, and later saw for myself when I traveled, were stories that had to be animated through fiction."

Animate he does. Marra takes us to a place most Americans still could not point to on a map, to a conflict we have no fluency in, and in his sure hand, the whole of it comes completely to life.

Over the course of two wars that began in 1994 and continued for more than a decade, Russian federal forces and Chechen rebels fought over control of Chechnya. In the first war, the rebel fighters won; in the second, they were beaten by Russia's much stronger military. The fighting on both sides was dirty — thousands of people were "disappeared," schoolchildren were taken hostage, a maternity hospital was bombed. There were mass killings, indiscriminate killings and suicide attacks. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed or displaced. Cities and villages were left in ruins.

The title of the novel comes from a medical dictionary. "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena — organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation." The novel focuses on a parallel constellation of characters, all held together by the gravity of the conflict around them.

Havaa is an orphaned girl with a suitcase full of souvenirs given to her by the refugees her parents have taken in. Sonja is a brilliant surgeon who runs the bombed-out hospital but whose real preoccupation is the search for her missing sister. Akhmed, Havaa's neighbor and savior and the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble cast, is a failed doctor who paints portraits of the disappeared and hangs them on the trunks of trees so his village might be repopulated.

Marra writes, "When he graduated from medical school in the bottom 10th he didn't know the disgrace weighing on him like a hundred rubles in five-kopek coins would one day be converted to less cumbersome denominations, when families ... came knowing he was too incompetent a doctor to save their son's life, but so skilled and well-trained an artist he might bring their son back."

Also in the constellation are a gunrunner whose strength to stay on the side of right has been worn down by suffering; Havaa's missing father; and another villager whose life's work is a history of Chechnya that's 3,000 pages long, which he cannot complete because the identity of the country changes so often.

Even the most minor characters are richly drawn. Among other examples, a bus driver who is never seen before or again gets this biography: "Since he was a boy, living on the banks of the Terek, he had dreamed of owning his own tour boat. Six and three-quarter years earlier, just a week before the Berlin Wall fell, the driver had sunk his life's savings into a tour boat, never built, and a contract, never fulfilled, to ferry Party members along the Terek. Now he sat on the ground and rested his back against the tires of the bus, but the land was a swelling and uncertain ocean and he would feel seasick for many years."

Characters' destinies are intertwined in many ways, which can be confusing and distracting if one gets too caught up in tracking the twists of fate. Fortunately, though the author has woven an intricate net, the pleasure of the book does not depend on the reader's grasp of every knot — the sense of connectedness is as meaningful as the particulars of it. Marra writes, "As a net is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what was no longer there."

Over and over again, this is an examination of the ways in which many broken pieces come together to make a new whole. In exquisite imagery, Marra tends carefully to the twisted strands of grace and tragedy. In a pit called the Landfill, prisoners carve their names into the clay walls. When someone is taken away to be killed, those who remain honor the lost with the most complete burial they can.

"Each took a palmful of earth from the thawing ground and pressed it to the wall. Without the body, they could only bury the name."

Though the book circles death and loss, everything in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena — the soil, the forest, the bus drivers and gunrunners and orphans, the burned buildings and the intact ones, the killers and the prisoners — is dignified with a hoping, aching heartbeat.


BOOK REVIEW

'A Constellation of Vital Phenomena'

By Anthony Marra

Hogarth. 384 pp. $26.

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