I started A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra knowing so little about Chechnya, the country where the story was set, that I couldn’t have pinpointed the country’s location on a map. If I’m being completely honest, I didn’t even know what continent Chechnya was part of. I vaguely recalled hearing the name on the television news and associated the country with bearded-guerillas armed with military-grade weapons and buildings so badly damaged by bombs that they need to be demolished, but like many people I ignore news stories that I don’t want to see or think about.
Several chapters into this book I realised that a whole new world had been opened up to me. I turned to Wikipedia to learn more about Chechnya and the country’s history, and learned of ferocious wars, genocide and disappearances of people of recent times. Very recent. I amended my search to ‘images’ and came up with photos of the country’s president, a jovial-looking bloke, then skimmed through an article where he said that he considered his wife (presumably his first wife since he has several) to be his property.
I exited the article and scrolled down further, hoping to see were photos of the countryside, the cities, the parks and the people but instead came across photos of many, many dead bodies lying in trenches. Never in a million years did I expect to see photos of the dead, so many photos of so many people who were killed on the edges of these terrible trenches for the convenience of their killers. I can’t stress enough that these photos were taken in my times. Our times. What kind of world are we living in?
My horror was compounded by the events that have been taking place in Afghanistan while I was reading this book. This time, I did pay attention to the news. Again, I have to ask what kind of world are we living in?
Don’t answer that.
We’re all living in the same world, but some of us are luckier than others. I’m lucky to live in a country where I am valued. I have clean water to drink, enough food to eat and a roof over my head. I received an education, I like my job and have the satisfaction of knowing that I contribute to society in a meaningful way. In general, the people in my country celebrate each other’s differences at best and tolerate or ignore them at worst. My country has rules that are fair, most of us follow them and recognise they exist to keep all of us safe. Our laws are the same for everyone regardless of their differences of gender, religion, age, education level, or their background. I know how lucky I am.
However, back to my book review.
I found A Constellation of Vital Phenomena to be a fascinating story. This was Anthony Marra’s first book who has since written several other well-received novels.
The main story was told over just a few days and featured a handful of characters linked to eight-year old Havaa, who were either as her family, neighbours or family friends from her village.
The very first sentence in this book described, in a very matter of fact way, the Feds burning down Havaa’s house and taking her father, Dokka.
Akhmed, a family friend and neighbour, found Havaa hiding and surreptitiously snuck her past various military checkpoints to a hospital in the nearby city of Volchansk, where he promised the doctor in charge that he would work for Havaa’s keep. Akhmed knew that if Havaa were to remain in the village she would soon be killed by the Feds in retaliation for a past event committed by others.
Akhmed was a doctor, but not a very good one. Prior to Akhmed’s arrival Sonja had been the last doctor remaining in the Volchansk hospital which had once employed hundreds of medical staff. Despite have little faith in Akhmed’s medical ability Sonja and the elderly nurse who assisted her agreed to Akhmed’s request out of necessity.
Due to extensive practice caused by people stepping on landmines, Sonja had become particularly skilled at performing amputations. I was partly horrified and partly amused reading about Akhmed carrying out his first amputation under Sonja’s instruction. ‘Amused’ may seem like a strange word to use, but Sonja made fun of Akhmed’s surprise to learn what colour a living person’s bone marrow was since he had only previously known marrow in the form of a cooked meat. In real life I probably would have passed out.
The story slid back and forwards over a ten year period from 1994 to 2004, between the first and second Chechen Wars. It told of Sonja and her relationship with her missing sister Natasha, Ahkmed and his friendships with Dokka and another of their neighbours, Ramzan, and of Ramzan’s father, Kassan. The friendship between the men had splintered after Ramzan became an informer on the people of their village after he and Dokka miraculously returned from the Landfill, a place where most detainees never returned from. The descriptions of the torture inflicted on almost all of the characters at one time or another was horrific, although to the characters themselves the torment was commonplace and they did not dwell on these events.
The history of Chechnya was also included in this story and it was complicated. Sonja and Natasha were ethnic Russians whose grandparents had been sent to Chechnya in Stalin’s time to populate the country. The remaining characters were Chechen Muslims and were considered to be less importance in their own country, but the references to the country’s history went back far beyond these characters and that of their grandparents. Chechnya doesn’t appear to have had much peace for at least 600 years.
The connections between the characters was woven together like delicate lace, with multiple strands connecting them and their stories.
In between telling the story of the main characters there were tiny little detours here and there into the lives of the minor characters. Some were precious memories while others were glimpses into the future. In their own way these little stories, almost asides, were souvenirs much like those that Havaa had collected from the refugees who stayed with her family as they passed through her village, leaving Chechnya on their way to somewhere else, somewhere safer, somewhere they could have a better life.
Despite the terrible times the characters were living in, there was plenty of humour in this novel, although much of it could be described as gallows humour. Ahkmed confused Ronald Reagan with Ronald McDonald as all American names sounded the same to him. A gangster was driven around and around his driveway in the backseat of his BMW by his driver since there were no intact roads left to drive on in the city. Deshi, the elderly nurse from the hospital had fallen in love twelve times previously and had hated oncologists ever since a love affair with a philandering one had left her heart-broken many years ago.
The constant personal losses suffered by the characters in this novel were heart-wrenching. Everyone carried their home address somewhere in their clothing in the hope that when they died their bones would be returned to their families (or whomever was left of them) and their homes (again, or what was left of them). Extraordinarily, those who didn’t die in violent circumstances would live to be an enormous age.
Anthony Marra’s writing was beautiful. I loved his story-telling style and felt connections with each of his characters without feeling as if I was wallowing in grief or terror or any of the other emotions they were feeling as they faced their terrible situations. The characters were sometimes brave and sometimes cowardly. During terrible events they were often resilient but at other times, minor issues devastated them. At all times they were human and I didn’t like to think too much about how I might have behaved if I had been in the situations they were in.
I would warn other readers that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena should be read when you have the time and energy to pay it full attention, because it isn’t a story that can be read lightly.
I’ll certainly read Marra’s other books.