What is a constellation of vital phenomena? According to Anthony Marra’s character in his new novel of the same name it is an “organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation,” all words that conform to a remarkable set of individuals set in Chechnya from 1994 through 2004, a period of rebellion and warfare on the part of the Chechen people against the now truncated Russian Empire. A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA is Marra’s first novel and he has produced a marvelous book that carries the reader on an emotional roller coaster as each character is carefully crafted as the narrative unfolds. The story immerses the reader in the Chechen civil war as the Chechan people jealous of other former Soviet Republics that have gained their independence fight for their own following collapse of the Soviet Empire by 1994. The fictional characters are improbable recreations, who perhaps on a more psychological level than one might expect, try to navigate the psychic and physical minefield that their lives evolve into. The narrative brings together Muslim rebels, Russian Federal troops and a remarkable cast of characters centered in the village of Volchansk’s Hospital No. 6.
As one begins reading, the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn come to mind. The Soviet Gulag appears in part as the Landfill that brings about the death of so many Chechens and other nationalities who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The character of Khassan emerges as the institutional memory of the Chechan people. A historian who tries to write a complete history of Chechnya is thwarted repeatedly as he must past the muster of several editors as Soviet history evolves through the 1970s to the 1990s. Through the travails of Khassan we peer into the inner workings of Soviet publishing as there is little consistency as to what can be read by the public. As each General Secretary dies, from Brezhnev through Chernenko, the editors keep altering their standards pertaining to how conservative or liberal the prevailing winds of change might be. Once the Berlin Wall comes down Khassan refuses to publish until Chechnya’s battle for sovereignty is included. For Khassan who eventually publishes part of his work, “everything did change, faster than his fingers could type.” (80) Khassan uses his writing as a means of escapism from a dysfunctional family torn apart by the Chechan Wars as he interacts with the other characters in the story.
Marra creates numerous relationships and themes for the reader to think about. Obviously wars cruelty is paramount, but within the context of never ending war the relationship between father and son is explored in all its dimensions. Khassan’s son becomes an informer resulting in the shunning of the family by the rest of the village; this creates a crisis his father must learn to cope with. The dichotomy between childhood and adulthood is seen as one relating to wisdom, trying to determine which has more despite the age differential. The relationship between sisters, one a successful surgeon and another tries to find herself as she emerges from drug addiction, slave prostitution and battles other demons. The friendship between two men who love the same woman and the daughter that is born from this triangle leads the reader on a journey as the characters try and understand their feelings and what they have become. Finally the relationship between a man and a woman reflected in a number of emotional unions that transverse the novel will finally become clear at the end of the narrative.
The fragility of life and the inevitability of death permeate each page. As the different characters try to relieve the suffering of others Marra produces scenes that only make the reader wonder if anything can be done to offset the misery that is Chechnya. As the characters seem to hang on to life by a thread even Sonja the stoic hospital surgeon and Ahmed, the “pseudo doctor” come together in a relationship that was difficult to fore see, or how Natasha, Sonja’s sister tries to cope with life’s inadequacies as she struggles to survive her situation. There are many other examples throughout the book that reinforces this theme and it is to Marra’s credit that he weaves them throughout a somewhat confusing chronology that once the reader adapts to enhance the narrative as a whole.
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA is an exceptional work detailing the travails of war and how people try and adapt and overcome. The topic here is the Chechen Civil War, but it could be any other violent strife that seems to burden the world each day. For a first novel this book reflects mastery of language and character development integrated into an accurate historical setting. Further, the author applies sarcastic humor that tries to humanize the experiences that his characters are faced with. I would conjecture that once you start reading you will not be able to put this book down.