Monday, April 29, 2013

Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

“Time became more important the closer to death one was, so an extra few hours to make peace with the world were worth more than years.”
This is Marra’s debut novel, and in it we see his queerly outsized talent and deep knowledge of human motivation and possibility. Where did he get the knowledge from which he created this book, and how did he come to know it? In what he calls his Bibliography, Marra credits Anna Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, ├ůsne Seierstad’s The Angel of Grozny: Orphans of a Forgotten War, and Allah's Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya, New Edition by Sebastian Smith for giving him much of the background he needed to imagine this place, in this time, a ten–year period between 1994 and 2003.

Constellation immerses one in the East—at no time does one image oneself to be anywhere but in that place east of Europe and west of the Caspian. I suppose everyone will have familiarized themselves with Chechnya now, after the 2013 Boston Marathon, but it is north of the Caucasus Mountain Range that separates Russia and its “rind of former republics” from what westerners term The Middle East. It has been the site of grim partisan wars, by hand and in person, back when one actually had to show up to kill another.

This hard-hitting novel shows us the broken families littering the landscape there, some forced into unseemly alliances with enemies, and the nearly limitless capacity of humans to inflict pain. But still there are some among the legion who are broken, who retain a measure of humor, dignity, and goodness that they share with other good souls. They recognize one another, these folks who hold themselves aloof from the cruelty, and it is because of them that we can even dream of a day when the sun shines on a peaceful patch of land where they can grow the food they need, play chess in the shade of a large tree, make music and make love and laugh without fear.

Marra gives us all this—what is there and what is not yet there—through the depth and strength of his writing of a people, place and time. His descriptions linger in the memory and stop the eye on the page. The Russian doctor, Sonja, was “a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside a set of unattractive but very white scrubs.” She returned to Chechnya from a safe place in London to find her beloved sister Natasha. “Though she was the elder, Sonja was always thought of as Natasha’s sister, the object rather than the subject of any sentence the two shared.”

She met Akmed, a better portraitist than he was a doctor, who helped her in the hospital and in life. In the midst of the betrayals and the shortening life horizon, for a brief moment “the circumference of the world tightened to what their arms encompassed.” But that moment passed and Havaa, beloved daughter of Dokka, remained, the daughter upon whom everyone’s hopes were pinned.

The “Constellation of Vital Phenomena”, gotten from an ancient medical text, is a term to describe life and in this definition consists of “organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, and adaptation.” Couldn’t the very same words be used to describe any work of art in the process of construction, like for instance, a novel?

This is an extraordinary piece of work, especially for a newcomer. I challenge you to forget this book, and your first up-close glimpse of that place called Chechnya. It distinguishes itself by its subject and the incisiveness of the writing. Despite the horror, or perhaps because of it, one wishes to see the place, to care and bear witness for the folks that stood up for their most basic rights—to live in peace, if not happiness.
“Not knowing what to do, [Kassan] walked back and forth [in the snow], urging the dogs to do so likewise, turning the snow into a riddle no one could solve.”


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