Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Heartbreaking. Horrifying. Compelling. These are just some of the words I would use to describe Anthony Marra's "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena."

While the novel technically relates to five days in the life of a Chechnyan village, the story spans a ten-year period. It's 2004, and the Second War between Russia and Chechnya is at its mid-point. Events that occurred during the First War (which took place from December 1994-August 1996) play an important role in what's happening in the characters' lives.  The author includes a timeline at the beginning of each chapter to indicate when the action occurs.

Chapter 1 opens, "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones." We quickly learn that eight year old Havaa is alive only because her father Dokka knew what the rumble of the truck in the middle of the night meant and sent the child--with her suitcase packed just for this occasion--out the back door and into the forest. We also learn that the house was burned in case she was hiding beneath a floorboard or in a cupboard.  Havaa, it seems, is a target of the Feds as well. 

When Havaa wakes up, she's in the home of her neighbor Akhmed. He bundles her up to take her to the city hospital where he's heard of a doctor he hopes will take her in. "He's not coming back, is he?" she asked. "I don't think so," Akhmed replies. "But what if he does?" the girl worries. "If he comes back, I'll tell him where you are. Is that a good idea?"  "My father is a good idea," Havaa says.

Over the course of the book, we learn about the lives of Dokka and his dead wife Esiila and the birth of Havaa. We get to know Akhmed, the self-proclaimed worst doctor in all of Chechnya, and his invalid wife Ula. We meet Sonja, the doctor in whose care Akhmed intends to place Havaa, and her lost sister Natasha. And then there's Ramzan, the village informer, and his father Khassan, a writer who chronicled the history of Chechnya.  The characters' lives are interwoven in complicated and unexpected ways.

Marra during a research trip to Chechnya
The world captured by Marra is a place where people can be taken to the Landfill for the most ridiculous of reasons. The specified reason for the arrest of an iman was that he was "too short." (The Feds were looking for a mastermind who had a beard and was less than two meters tall. Everyone in the village fitting this description was taken away.)  Some who are taken are returned, although their existence will never be the same.  The others become part of the disappeared. 

It's a world where intense periods of bombing lead everyone to seek shelter outside, finding it easier to sleep in the cold than with the fear of falling rubble.  "The homeless, insane and alcoholic reigned in this world...The city pariahs were inundated by professors and lawyers and accountants whose degrees were worth the five seconds of warmth they could fuel."

It's a world where the bombed out hospital treats only war victims and expectant mothers and has a guard with only one arm. Land mine victims are the most common patients. "Leg amputations are normal business here," Sonja tells Akhmed.  The amputated legs are wrapped and saved for burial.

This is the world in which Havaa is growing up. Not surprisingly, she grasps onto the people whose lives touch hers. Her suitcase contains one change of clothing and the souvenirs she's collected from the refugees her parents have sheltered. When Akhmed leaves her at the hospital each night, she worries that she'll never see him again. He has instantly become her new father figure. And while Havaa doesn't view Sonja as a new mother, she is intrigued by her. Sonja is different from the women Havaa has known. "Women weren't supposed to be doctors; they weren't capable of the work, the schooling, the time and commitment, not when they had houses to clean, and children to care for, and dinners to prepare, and husbands to please. But Sonja was more freakish, more wondrously confounding than the one-armed guard; rather than limbs she had, somehow, amputated expectations. She didn't have a husband, or children, or a house to clean and care for.  She was capable of the work, school, time, commitment, and everything else it took to run a hospital. So even if Sonja was curt and short-tempered, Havaa could forgive her these shortcomings, which were shortcomings only in that they were the opposite of what a woman was supposed to be.  The thick, stern shell hid the defiance that was Sonja's life.  Havaa liked that."

"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" is an incredibly hard read. Marra's impeccable storytelling skills and beautiful use of language make the torture and sorrow all too easy to envision.  But the way he weaves the stories together is nothing less than remarkable. And he somehow leaves the reader with a glimmer of hope for better days.  It's a book that will stay with you long after you've finished the last page.  Read it.   

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