Title: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author: Anthony Marra
Genre(s): Literary, fiction, Chechnya, war, family, friendship, tragedy
I came into this cold. One, I’m Vietnamese, and two, I’m living on the other side of the world. So I was uncomfortably unfamiliar with the history, culture, and current events of Chechnya. It’s a region in Russia rife with conflict, often forgotten and overlooked, and I was afraid I’d come into this story quite lost. Marra, however, knew how to bring me up to speed through the thoughts and actions of his characters.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes place between the 90s and early 2000s, presenting a staggering amount of characters and timelines, but chiefly concerns, among others, a Chechen girl named Havaa whose father was kidnapped by the Feds. Her father’s friend Akhmed, in charge of her care and protection, approaches a Russian surgeon named Sonja for sanctuary. Fate brings these three people together as Havaa is somehow connected to Natasha, Sonja’s missing sister, and Akhmed might get to the bottom of why Havaa’s father disappeared.
The strongest element of this novel is the language. It’s crisp, apt, and beautiful, very insightful of the human condition without suffering from purple prose. I underline any phrases and paragraphs that strike me as well-written statements describing the characters or life in general. My copy is littered with such underlining. Sometimes I like a chunk of a chapter so much that I have to bracket them. What I also admire is Marra’s versatility as a writer. He covers a wide array of subjects, not just mere dates and facts of the Chechen conflict. Sonja’s profession calls for an authentic portrayal of the gritty nature of war-time surgery, which I found to be brilliantly written and sometimes hard to read. There’s also a quite a bit on smuggling and informing that’s inherent in Russia’s war scene (which I obviously know less about, but take Marra’s word on). Chechen culture and values bubble to the surface, primarily through the attitudes and thoughts of characters, in the midst of a war tearing this region apart.
Being a student in medical-related sciences, I particularly enjoyed Sonja: the brilliant, tough-as-nails, sometimes foul-mouthed Russian surgeon who makes impressive work of running a hospital frequented by land mine victims. I love how her sharp, quick-witted, jaded demeanor is softened when she and Akhmed, both damaged and suffering from the war, find comfort in caring for Havaa. I also love her initial tension and animosity with Akhmed. It allows for many instances of dry, black humor that offsets the tragedy permeating the story.
Akhmed, in contrast to Sonja’s academic prowess, is a failed physician but a great artist (which makes him a frequent hapless target of her jibes and disdain). I have to admit that I like Akhmed’s background more than his actual character, since I pursue visual arts when I’m not busy studying science.
This novel took me longer to get through than The Tsar of Love and Techno, mostly because I had to step back and pause to keep up with the swath of characters and details I’m afraid I might miss or not remember. It did take me some time to know who is who and what is happening. The wide scope of characters and events makes this novel a very ambitious one. Aside from the situation with Havaa, Sonja’s desire to find her sister, and Akhmed’s struggle to stay afloat from the stress of working for Sonja and looking after Havaa, subplots abound as timelines jump back and forth and other characters receive the narrative spotlight. Natasha herself gets her story told. Khassan, a Chechen historian and Ramzan, an informer, are father and son as well as Akhmed’s acquaintances. They get their share of the novel too. The wide breadth of this novel is a minor detract to the overall poignancy and emotional impact the story delivers.
I enjoyed The Tsar of Love and Techno more, mostly because the movement of time is less jumpy and I feel like I have more room to breathe and keep up with the narrative. Still, if you want to be whisked away into someplace that’s likely new to you, want a story that tugs at your heartstrings and squeezes out a dry chuckle or two, and like seeing the dots connect like a constellation to admire from afar, I recommend giving A Constellation of Vital Phenomena a go.
I really look forward to reading more from Marra.