In a hospital in Volchansk, Chechnya, on a boarded-up gash where a window once sat, a crude mural depicts the city as it had been before war reduced it to rubble. Looking at the mural the viewer is spared, for as long as she can pretend, the reality that the open space would offer: a void of destruction and death.
In his astonishing debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra paints a mural of war so vivid in its awfulness that we tremble as we gaze, but we enter the tableau and become so caught up in the power of Marra’s narrative that we tread heedlessly on the landmines of heartbreak.
The war in Chechnya occurred not once, but twice in our recent past. Its roots are so deep and tangled in the history of the North Caucasus region—which one character tries to tell in a six-volume, 3,300-page history—that most of us are helpless to name who is fighting whom and where. Forget even trying to tackle the why. But if you can grasp that Chechnya tried to break away from Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, you’ll have a glimpse of the First Chechen War. If you understand the first war obliterated the infrastructure of the country and left it vulnerable and run by corrupt warlords, then you’ll have an inkling why Russia invaded a second time. But don’t worry that you still don’t know where this place is or why it’s fought over like a scrap of meat between starving dogs. You’ll get there. Be patient. Take a few minutes to Google a map of Chechnya or Wikipedia, but trust Anthony Marra help sort it out, through the graceful and tragic voices of his characters.
Marra unveils a time so awful it’s hard to get the head around, but with a sense of whimsy and just a touch of the surreal that the reader smiles, feeling awash with affection and hope, before being plunged again into the viscera of war. Akhmed’s exchanges with Sonja are delicious. Akhmed, who is so inadequate as a physician that he does less harm by drawing portraits of the dead and missing than treating the wounded, offers his skills to Sonja, who can sew up a man’s chest with dental floss. Yet she finds use for him in the hospital she runs with an ancient nurse who speaks in the third person. Akhmed represents humanity—a flawed man, but one imbued with tremendous compassion. The child he saves, Havaa—the daughter of his best friend—is the shining star in this constellation of survivors. Sonja’s sister, Natalia, is a comet that sears past so quick and bright it takes the breath away. If you’re lucky, the comet will return again in your lifetime, as Natalia does between the two wars, but know that it will burn fast and disappear while your heart is still pounding. And Sonja is the sun—a strong and shining beacon of intelligence and ferocity—that keeps the stars in alignment. As much as a vulnerable, tired, angry and frightened human can.
It takes some time to settle into Marra’s style and the jarring construction of the narrative, but let go of logic, let go of linear structure and let the characters show you what they need to tell their story. The surface story takes place over a few days in 2004, when Havaa’s father is “disappeared” and Akhmed takes her from their village to the nearby city of Volchansk, to shelter her in the crumbling hospital. But expect shifts of time between the first and second Chechen wars—that is to say, between 1994 and 2004—with a few jumps to World War II, as the nesting dolls of history are dumped out and scattered on the table. There is a steady stream of characters, each with his or her own tattered tale to represent the ancient and modern history of Chechnya, each illustrating the madness of war.
War is absurd. The very idea that modern societies continue to resolve conflict with wanton destruction is beyond explanation. Regardless of our obsession with history, our pop culture fascination with wars distant and current, we seem destined to do the same thing over and over again, expecting but never achieving a different result. Einstein’s definition of insanity. In this arena of the absurd are ordinary people forced to live extraordinary lives.
Marra’s novel reminds us why art is vital to the human race: art keeps us human, despite our avid attempts to obliterate ourselves. Art exposes history that we tune out while it’s happening, because we’re just trying to get through our daily lives. Ah, the irony: experiencing at our leisure—with an act most of us find pleasurable (reading) —a past that we couldn’t make sense of when it was happening. The absurdity continues. But so does humanity.