Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

It is hard to believe that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a first novel by someone younger than 30. True, Anthony Marra received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and has won a number of awards: a Whiting, a Pushcart Prize, the Narrative Prize. the National Book Critics Circle's inaugural John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, and the inaugural Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award. My opinion: He deserves them all.

The novel, a work of research and invention, is set in Chechnya and the characters move between a village and Grozny, the capital. It covers five days in 2004 during the second Chechnen War with flashbacks and—interestingly—flash forwards. The three main characters are an eight-year-old girl, Havaa, who watches Russian soldiers abduct her father and burn down her house; Akhmed, a Muslim GP, who rescues Havaa from the forest and takes her to Grozny and a ruined hospital where Sonja is the only doctor left.

The novel's title is a Russian medical dictionary's definition of "life." The theme is how to live in a world of random violence, torture, land mines, and death. I know, it does not sound appealing, but Marra's language, feeling for his characters, and story carried me along. Here is a sample of the writing:

"And Grozny appeared, gray on the horizon asthe road devolved to a basin of broken masonry and trampled apartment blocks. Cigarette kiosks slouched on the sidewalk. Akhmed wished he had taken paper and a pencil with him to capture his first trip to the city. Sonja brought the jeep to a crawl as they tipped into a crater. The street rose and disappeared somewhere above them, the whole world of dark wet earth, the tires spinning and reaching the lip. No scent drifted through the open window but the engine burn. No sewage or raw waste. Nothing. A flattened bureau basked in the sun, knobs pried out. The flicker of an oil-drum fire three blocks out came as a small, welcome signal of human habitation. Behind the flame a man turned a rotisserie fashioned from clothes hangers and a gardening stake on which was impaled a pink fist of flesh. . . ."

I had not realized as I read the book that Marra is not Chechnen and not Russian (although he spent a college semester in Russia). He told The New York Times “Research is not an obstacle, something to be frightened of. It can be one of the real joys of writing. Someone once said, ‘Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.’But to make a book convincing, it’s less important that the right tree be in the right place than that the characters are emotionally real. I did the best I could to make the environment and the setting as realistic as possible, but I hope it’s the characters and the emotional reality that make the book true.” They do. They do.

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