A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

By Harvey Freedenberg

by Anthony Marra, (Hogarth, $26, 400 pages)

Even now, months after the Chechen Republic leaped into American consciousness with the news that two young men of Chechen heritage were accused of executing the Boston Marathon bombing, few of us have any comprehension of the tragic story of that distant land. If you are wise enough to invest the time in reading Anthony Marra’s gorgeous and gut-wrenching first novel, that will change quickly.
Demonstrating both a mastery of the storyteller’s art and resonant prose of a quality many authors strive for a lifetime to attain, the 28-year-old Marra displays the assurance of a seasoned novelist to create a vivid fictional world in which his characters somehow retain hope in the most hopeless circumstances.

The time period of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena spans the two wars that overwhelmingly ravaged Muslim Chechnya from 1994 to 1996 and again from 1999 to 2004. Marra confidently abandons a straight chronological narrative for one that loops backward and forward through this period.

The novel opens in December 2004 with the disappearance of Dokka, an inhabitant of the village of Eldár, in a raid conducted by Russian forces identified only as the Feds. Dokka’s neighbor, Akhmed, spirits the captured man’s 8-year-old daughter, Havaa, through the snowy forest to the nearby town of Volchansk, where only 20 percent of the buildings have escaped destruction.

Akhmed and Havaa arrive at Hospital No. 6, an institution that’s damaged but intact, though it’s been reduced from a staff of 500 to three: a one-armed security guard, a nurse and a brilliant doctor named Sonja, an ethnic Russian. The only medical procedures performed there are deliveries and trauma surgery (often amputations, of which one is described in grisly detail). Sonja reluctantly allows Akhmed, himself a medical-school graduate (“an incompetent doctor but a decent man”) to join her.

Akhmed had skipped a year of pathology to audit studio-art classes, but his skill in portraiture enables him to preserve the memories of 41 Eldár villagers slaughtered or abducted to a place of torture called the “Landfill” in a single night of terror in 2001.

What’s painstakingly disclosed over the course of this elegantly constructed novel is the intricate web of connection that links the principal characters. Sonja tries to unravel the mystery behind the 2003 disappearance of her younger sister, Natasha, who has her own tragic tie to Eldár.

The multi-generational relationships among the residents of the village are slowly revealed. In the frequently tense narrative, Marra describes acts of stirring self-sacrifice and the basest cowardice, but at their best and worst, his characters all are fully realized human beings. Akhmed tells Sonja that Leo Tolstoy’s final novel, Hadji Murád, was set in Chechnya in an earlier time of war.

And while it wouldn’t be fair to compare Marra’s effort to War and Peace, this novel is Tolstoyan in its empathy and in the moral gravity of its concerns.

Marra also consistently demonstrates his gift for succinct, often heartbreaking prose. In Sonja’s indifference, Akhmed “saw the truth of a world he didn’t want to believe in, one in which a human being could be discarded as easily as pocket lint.” He bitterly describes “scrap metal and disappearances” as “our national industries.” Guiding Akhmed on a tour of Chechnya’s war-ravaged capital city of Grozny, Sonja’s voice “raised every edifice from the dust and replanted every linden tree.”

In taking as his subject the devastation war wreaks on the inhabitants of anonymous European villages, Marra joins a group of other outstanding young novelists like Téa Obreht (The Tiger’s Wife) and Ramona Ausubel (No One is Here Except All of Us), who’ve produced similarly affecting works. Unlike Obreht and Ausubel, who incorporate significant elements of magical realism into their novels, Marra never diverts his piercing gaze from the devastating reality that’s the lot of his characters.

Despite that fundamental seriousness, his work doesn’t lack some leavening humor, as in the exchange reminiscent of “Who’s on First?” with which an elderly nurse greets Akhmed when he arrives at the hospital, or in Akhmed’s belief that it was Ronald McDonald who told Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Commenting on the destruction that greets him in Grozny, Akhmed wryly muses that he “should have visited sooner.”

An aged resident of Eldár named Khassan dedicates himself to writing a history of the Chechen people to preserve the stories of “this sliver of humanity the world seemed determined to forget.”

It’s the same forgetfulness that’s allowed similar recent ethnic slaughters in Rwanda and Kosovo to slip unnoticed from our collective memory. In this desperately beautiful novel, Anthony Marra comes as close as one can with the written word to vanquishing that tragic amnesia.