A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra
Published May, 2013
I am not the only reader to see a strong family resemblance between A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and Everything is Illuminated (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer’s surprisingly comic fictional account of a post-Holocaust pilgrimage back to the family shtetl in Ukraine. First there is its title’s announcement of cosmic ambition. Then there is the enormity of its subject – the recent Chechen Wars – to which we can add the author’s youthfulness on publishing his first novel amid significant buzz.
Twenty-eight-year-old Marra is at the young end of a generation confident about embracing the world, including its dark matter, with the narrative cleverness and even playfulness of a rediscovered postmodernism. In the vanguard were David Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, both published in 2000. Eggers told the story of his parents’ deaths with self-mocking grandeur; while Smith’s group of angry Muslim youths in London laboured under the acronym KEVIN. You can find a similar boldness in Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (2011), which threaded magic realism into the Balkans conflict, and even Nam Le’s The Boat (2008) falls into this company, with its stories’ quietly flamboyant demonstration of geographic reach. With this fearlessness comes a fierce awareness of the book as a volatile technology, part of a tradition of accumulated stories that are historical and powerful but also, somehow, not enough. Discussing the various meanings of his title in an interview, Foer spoke about his love of illuminated manuscripts – ‘embellished, overstuffed books’. ‘I love the idea of books being more than books,’ he said, ‘or being, rather, something other than books.’
This sense of wanting to be more than a book applies just as aptly to Marra’s novel. He has set out to write the only novel about modern Chechnya, a country where the war crimes witnessed by murdered Russian journalist Anna Poliskovkaya were so appalling that the academic introducing her collection of dispatches, A Little Corner of Hell (2005), described reading it as an act of ‘moral labour’. Politskovskaya’s two books on the country were among the nonfiction sources on which Marra had to rely, as he was unable to get to Chechnya until last year, when, as he recounted drolly to a journalist, he was able to join a ‘Seven Wonders of Chechnya’ tour.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena hinges on the story of a Chechen villager who, over five days, tries to save a young girl from a Russian death squad. But its ambitions don’t stop at exhaustive research and breaking new fictional ground; though less brilliantly intellectualised and dazzling than Everything is Illuminated, with its tricky double time-scheme, Marra’s novel is just as committed to a superabundance of narrative life. A surfeit of other stories (and micro-stories like little flashes of bioluminescence) presses around its central drama. Within its pages we also find other books: Tolstoy’s late novel Hadji Murád (1912); a Russian medical textbook, from whose definition of life the novel takes its title; and a 3300-page history of Chechnya written by one of its main characters. Art, too, mostly of the outsider kind, keeps making an appearance: a local doctor’s life-sized portraits of disappeared villagers; cardboard renditions of the lost buildings of a town pasted onto a hospital’s broken windows; and memorials written in the wet clay of one of Chechnya’s torture camps by dying men.
This strategy of superaddition is partly a reaction to Chechnya’s complex history of suffering, a way of registering its weight and layers. It is also a solution to a practical narrative problem: in writing about modern Chechnya, a place whose history will be opaque to most readers, it is necessary to explain great tranches of the past. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place across two wars. The main, five-day, story is set in 2004, five years into the Second Chechen War, which officially ended in 2009. Its back story takes place during and just after the First War of 1994-1996. The roots of both these conflicts go back to Russia’s mid-nineteenth-century occupation of the North Caucasus.
As the novel opens in the village of Eldár, Akhmed, an incompetent doctor, has watched a group of ‘Feds’ (Russian soldiers) arrive in the night, abduct his friend Dokka, and burn down his house. In the morning, he finds Dokka’s eight-year-old daughter, Havaa, who has managed to flee into the snowy woods. Knowing that the men from the Interior Ministry will come back for her, Akhmed walks her to the hospital in nearby Volchansk. In this ravaged building, where only the trauma and maternity wards are still open, tough Sonja, an ethnic Russian and brilliant surgeon, is the last doctor remaining – and still traumatised by her own sister Natasha’s mysterious disappearance. Akhmed convinces her to let the girl stay, offering his poor skills in return (he skipped lectures during his training to attend art class). This is particularly risky for him, as his village has at least one informer, Ramzan, the son of his good friend Khassan, while Sonja herself would swap him and Havaa in a moment for her sister.
As this tense – though often absurd – story continues, the novel flashes back into the past. We learn that Sonja travelled to London to study before the First Chechen War began, only returning after the Russians withdrew because her sister had disappeared for the first time. Sonja had not being living long in her family’s old bombed-out apartment when Natasha reappeared, scarred and heroin-addicted from years in the international sex trade; lacking Sonja’s talents, she had used her body to try to follow her. The sisters’ relationship is prickly: as Sonja puts it to herself, she would cross the country for her sister, but not a room. After working beside her in the hospital for some time, and seeming to improve, Natasha disappeared again.
The Second Chechen War, according to Politskovskaya, was much worse than the first, during which some neighbourliness survived. This time around, as we see in the novel, a corrupt Russian army (often in collaboration with Chechen criminals) has reduced Chechens’ lives to a precarious bare existence. War crimes thrive, unpoliced and unwitnessed: kidnapping for ransom, theft, rape, torture and mutilation are everyday occurrences. Neither the newborn nor the elderly are spared (and, certainly, many of the stories in A Small Corner of Hell, especially about children, are almost unreadable). In a chilling act of Orwellian naming, Russia’s troops, often comprising the dregs of its prisons, have established ‘filtration points’, interrogation centres set up in the republic’s decaying industrial infrastructure, where Chechens are tortured and released, or, more often, disappeared. In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, the local ‘filtration point’ is the Landfill, where prisoners are thrown into deep snow-filled pits. To be able to even identify or bury a relative in Chechnya is a sick kind of luxury, as the box of tags in Sonja’s hospital attests; these scraps of paper sewn into the dead’s clothing, but found too late, list their home towns and any family who might come to collect them.
Tolstoy’s last novel, Hadji Murád, is set during Russia’s mid-nineteenth-century colonisation of the North Caucasus, its most drawn out and costly conflict to that time. The war ended when Dagestan-based leader Imam Shalil surrendered under generous terms in 1859. (This was also the war that would lead the mountain people to embrace the Islamic ideal of jihad.) Murád, a noble Avar chieftain caught between warring local and Russian forces, defects to the Russians in order to save his family: though he is double-crossed, and dies. So when affable Akhmed gives Sonja a copy of Tolstoy’s book as their tentative friendship develops, and she tells him that she always reads the last line of novels first, we know that things can’t end well: Hadji Murád concludes with an image of a crushed thistle, trammeled but still thorny, in the midst of a ploughed field, reminding the narrator of Murád and symbolising Chechen endurance. This last line is also the epigraph of Marra’s novel.
By putting this novel into the hands of his characters, Marra can signal – without having to explain – the roots of this conflict, which has caught the North Caucasus and Russia in a long, not always hostile, embrace. In the twentieth century, this history would only become more complex. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, which many Chechens supported, Chechnya would become an autonomous republic of the new USSR, gaining health care, education and infrastructure. During World War Two, many Chechens fought for the Red Army, though some farm workers, resenting collectivisation, helped the Germans in their push through the Caucasus. For this reason, Stalin ordered the mass deportation of the population to Central Asia in 1944. Around a third would die en route. Those who survived were only able to return after his death in 1953. When Communist rule ended in 1989, Chechen separatists demanded autonomy – but unlike Russia’s full republics, which had the right, at least nominally, to separate from the USSR, republics created by the Bolsheviks did not. Fearing the loss of other mineral-rich territories, and facing internal unrest, President Yeltsin besieged the Chechen capital, Grozny. The Chechens recaptured it in 1996, ending the war, but at the price of its obliteration and the flight of much of the population. The region was left almost hopelessly fragmented, crime-torn, and run by warlords. Islamic Revolution became part of Chechen independence, and when less hard-line Islamic Dagestan was targeted in 1999 with a spate of bombings, Russia invaded again.
Marra manages to translate much of this knottiness into human terms without entangling the reader. Sonja’s family was part of the influx of Russian immigrants after the Stalinist deportation. In the village of Eldár, Khassan’s son, Ramzan, is both an opportunist and a victim, eking a living from the shifting criminal economy of war by running weapons for a sheikh, and later by informing for the Russians. For some time, he took Dokka the arborist with him, and the flashbacks to their trips together over the ravaged landscape are some of the best scenes in the book; especially when the two men come across a forgotten village, still following the more traditional Sufi beliefs. But a trip to the Landfill after being caught by Russian troops cost Dokka his fingers and, ultimately, his life, when Ramzan turns him in. The ironies of Ramzan’s situation are many. He has been to the Landfill before, when he was twenty-three, during the First Chechen War: for refusing to inform on his village, he was castrated. It was only during this second visit with Dokka that he gave in and became an informer. He does this partly out of a sense of loyalty to his father, who needs diabetes medicine, but Khassan, who hasn’t spoken to him for almost two years, feeds the food he brings home to a pack of stray dogs.
Khassan himself is a fit 79-year-old veteran of the Red Army, having frozen his balls, as he tells Akhmed, through nine different time zones over sixteen years of service . Yet in spite of this he was exiled with his parents to Kazakhstan, returning with nothing but their disinterred remains in his suitcase. It is Khassan’s huge, unfinished history of Chechnya – reminiscent of unlicensed Doctor Iannis’s history of Cephallonia in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières (1994) – that lets Marra cleverly cover the finer complexities of the republic’s relationship with Russia. To fit the ideological demands of various regimes, Khassan’s publishers have demanded rewrite after rewrite. In the end, only a tiny section on Chechnya’s prehistory has made it into print, though Khassan will find the courage, finally, to chronicle recent events for Havaa.
The Chechnya of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a world of haunted objects, whose very specific little stories give a sense, far more eloquently than any tranche of exposition, of its tragic place in world affairs. Sonja’s neighbour has ‘bartered a jar of engine oil for sandals that bore the blackened imprints of forty different toes’. Havaa’s Barbie doll was donated by a ‘devout Warsaw Catholic who believed the makers of department-store toys were conspiring to turn his ten-year-old girl into a heathen so had had boxed up all but her Nativity figures and, filled with the spirit of Christian charity, sent them to a heathen country where they could do no harm to the souls of children already beyond salvation.’ She also treasures a box of objects bartered over the years by fleeing refugees for a safe place at Dokka’s house: among them, the plastic figurine of a ballerina in pirouette and a field guide to Caucasian flora. Each of these pieces of flotsam shows a country at the bottom of the barrel of global consciousness, but still caught in its economic web.
Surprisingly – both for better and worse – this is not a somber novel. Instead, Marra concentrates on moments of human grace, no matter how humble. Akhmed is the novel’s major representative of humanity, able to hold onto his good nature and sense of humour even in the face of certain death. More disconcerting is the continuing banter between characters; it seems at times as if every inhabitant of the region speaks like a character in an absurdist play. ‘There’s no tastebuds in your stomach,’ Akhmed tells Havaa, who is wolfing some bread. ‘There’s no hunger in your tongue,’ she replies. Nurse Deshi, who helps out at the hospital, is an amalgam of a pantomime crone and one of Marquez’s earthy older people: ‘After twelve love affairs over the course of her seventy-three years, each beginning with a grander gesture, each ending with a more spectacular heartache, Deshi had learned to distrust men of every size and age, from newborns to great-grandfathers, knowing they all had it in them to break a decent woman’s heart.’ ‘He continues to speak without being spoken to,’ she says when she first meets Akhmed. ‘And he has an ugly nose.’ Sometimes Marra’s humour is broader. Ronald McDonald is the President of the United States, Akhmed claims. When Sonja scoffs that he can’t be serious, he replies, ‘English names all sound the same’.
But it is art that shines brightest in the novel’s cosmology. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is filled with small handmade memorials that form another kind of constellation around its characters. After 41 villagers are disappeared one night – the event that triggers his wife’s dementia – Akhmed paints their portraits (adding a wart to the nose of a woman who never paid for his obstetric services) and nails them up around the village. He is also able to draw the disappeared from their families’ descriptions. Soon these skills begin to look as life-giving as Sonja’s ability to stitch a surgical wound perfectly with dental floss. While she was working at the hospital, Natasha drew the view of lost Volchansk onto the cardboard covering its windows; in a proleptic flash we learn that these drawings will be kept by Sonja and appear eventually in an exhibition. But Marra’s most moving invention – which seems to owe a debt to the painting of the eyes on the Buddha in Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000) – is a ritual the men in the Landfill create. Each scratches his name into the dirt walls of the pits. When he is called by loudspeaker to climb the ladder to his fate, the others improvise a memorial service, then bury the writing with a handful of wet clay.
In all these ways, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena throws light onto a dark corner of the world that is often only in the news during terrible events like the 2004 Beslan school massacre or the recent Boston Marathon bombings. Marra’s ability to concentrate and humanise Chechnya’s plight is particularly impressive; the fact that he focuses his attention on women’s role in war (and chooses a little girl as the symbol of Chechnya’s future) is particularly welcome. Certainly, the novel has been attracting strong reviews. Ron Charles of the Washington Post described it as ‘a flash in the heavens that makes you look up and believe in miracles.’
But can a book about atrocity be too miraculous? For Marra’s novel has even more optimistic work to perform. First, at the micro-level of narrative structure, there are those multiple flash-forwards to its characters’ futures that seem to owe as much to the end sequence of the HBO series Six Feet Under as the famous opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude (1967): ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ In these we learn, for example, that Khassan will suffer from dementia and that Sonja will live, and even glimpse the entire fate of characters only introduced for a few lines. Dementia is not, admittedly, a happy outcome, but in a world whose most awful fact is its uncertainty such glimpses work against the agony of not-knowing that is central to the Chechnyan experience. It is the same with the objects in this book, which are so often scrupulously enumerated and restored to an exact sense of their provenance (those 40 toes in Sonja’s neighbour’s shoes). This seems, one can’t help thinking, peculiarly American. Marra also offers the consolation of surprise connections between his major characters; in two instances these are genetic. Some are linked in other ways: Natasha, for example, has met Dokka not once but twice – and has read Khassan’s book.
All of these instances of a higher logic, or at least a novelistic order, governing a chaotic world are more of a comfort to the reader than the characters, who remain largely unaware. In fact, the novel’s soft magic realism brings it as close to the reassuring closure of free-to-air television or the American self-help canon as the fabulist tradition from which it borrows. In this way, Marra’s narrative games are very different to Foer’s, which were all about the difficulties of making connections with a place or past. Instead of postmodern scepticism, we find a soothing and repeated endorsement of the imagination’s powers, in which the novel exceeds its limits by incorporating so many instances of imaginative labour. Art, rather than fate, becomes the dominant form of enchantment, the novel more than a novel, part of a constellation of talismanic objects it includes within itself.
In fact, Marra appears to have so internalised the idea of art’s redemptive purpose that he pours out its balm with each sentence – something we might also identify as a signature style of the Iowa Writers Workshop, which Marra credits in his acknowledgments. The difficulties are all there in the novel’s first line (again, reminiscent of Marquez), which grafts the whimsical to the awful: ‘On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from a dream of sea anemones.’ Further in, the little girl’s hands do not simply hold, but ‘bracelet’ Akhmed’s wrist, while her house is reduced to poetic ‘char’. Even as Akhmed is later washing his dead wife – one of the novel’s most moving scenes – his fingers ‘slalom’ down her spine: a surprisingly knowing metaphor to attach to the actions of a man unable to imagine a more exotic travel destination than Grozny. This relentless polishing becomes a kind of anaesthetic, sparing us from the hurts and despairs the novel chronicles so well. It also creates a distance from its already not-very-believable characters, especially Havaa, who never feels like a flesh-and-blood child of war.
In a recent essay for Sydney Review of Books, James Bradley remarked on a tendency in contemporary fantasy-based fiction to indulge in a sentimental celebration of storytelling itself. Not only that genre, one might add; it is as much a problem for contemporary literary fiction, as some critics noted of The Tiger’s Wife and Foer’s second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). This may in fact be a consequence of the literary novel’s globalisation, as it comes to see itself increasingly as part of a constellation of other books and art forms whose parts, less tied to the local, are as interchangeable as the architecture of a mall or airport. If this is the case, it seems unfair to single out A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a novel so remarkably assured in its grasp of its subject and ability to physicalise history that it rivals Peter Carey – a history it makes urgent and intensely readable. Yet in Marra’s novel everything is so illuminated by Art and Hope that it is hard to feel as moved as one would wish; or rather, one risks being more moved by an ahistorical sense of art’s capacity to move than the very particular plight of Chechnya itself.