The Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was about residents of Chechnya fighting Russian soldiers. This, his second novel, captures those Russian fighters: we see who they are, why they are, what they do. We see their humanity, their crushable-ness, the love they have for one another. They know no more about Chechnya than they do about life outside their village. The stories are a feat of empathy.
Marra takes us on a journey, but we feel we are coming home. We enter the lives of those who lived long ago: a censor for the Soviet State, a prima ballerina, a painter. We see the lives of those who came after: a movie star, a street thug, a father in the nickel mines of Siberia. Marra involves us in their lives and teaches us something new about an area of the world that we could never have known, wouldn’t have ever seen, even with travel. But it doesn’t feel distant or removed: it feels as though it could be us, there, in Siberia, in Chechnya.
How did he do that?
He does it with language: two young brothers joke with one another in a familiar way—familiar to us, too. Galina, the movie star, answers the phone “Who gave you this number?” trying, unsuccessfully, to keep her old life at bay. A handicapped soldier patiently explains the best time to expect generosity from passersby. We could be these characters, savvy, stupid, absurd, and yet somehow worthy.
He does it with structure: Pieces of one person’s life turn out to the same piece of another person’s life. The stories have commonalities, a thread that disappears into the weft of a weave, a color (gray? green? leopard-skin?) that recurs.
He does it with images: the photograph of the cancer-ridden wife of a dreamer and her two sons all dressed in leopard-skin bikinis by the pollution that was Lake Mercury, while smoke from the twelve apostles spews into the unchanging gray sky in the background; the mix tape of songs and voices that is carried in the shirt pocket or in the head like a talisman; a green hillside in Chechnya, perhaps the most enduring of the images, common to a nineteenth century painter, a censor, an archivist, a soldier, a brother.
What to make of the Rousseau’s leopard that the censor painted on the back of a picture of Stalin? The leopard, or leopard-print, recurs frequently, another of the images that grounds us. The flip-side of government is a man-eating beast? On Stalin’s back was a populace with strength, humor, courage, and a certain untamable wildness? Adult leopards vocalize with a raspy cough, can take down prey far larger than themselves, and have a pattern of rosettes on their bodies that resemble “black roses.”
We are familiar, by the end, with the Siberian mining town--its pleasures and perils, with painting—airbrushing and restorations, with the life of a movie star, a gangster, a Soviet citizen. Imagination is what sustains us all.
A word must be said about Marra’s language in this novel. He takes risks with his similes, reveling in the writing, and unfettered by fear: “…a man’s chin, with its deep dimple, looks like a small dog’s balls.” We know he can write solemnly, poignantly, about love and death, about criminality and chance. We also know he has a taste for the absurd in the brutality that can be life. Humor is a major factor in this book, for were it not so, none would survive.
I listened to the mix tape of this novel, published by Random House Audio and read by Mark Bramhall, Beata Pozniak, and Rustam Kasymov. The voices are accented English, as though a Russian were reading English, and it is extraordinarily effective. A listener experiences familiar corny jokes in an unfamiliar inflection that warms us to the characters, and makes us feel at home and away at the same time. I wish all authors and publishers took as much care with the audio production as they obviously did with this one. Kudos to all.
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