Monday, July 15, 2013

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: On War-Torn Chechnya

Andrew Marra's debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, about the last two decades in war-torn Chechnya, isn't an easy read — but not in the sense that it's difficult to understand. It's not an easy read because it's, in a word, unflinching. There are depictions of torture that can make even the most iron-stomached reader squirm. And there are also stories of human trafficking, drug abuse, and plenty of violence.

Additionally, it's not an easy read because of the simple fact that it's a little embarrassing not to have ever heard of or have been cognizant of this pain and these atrocities and the sheer lack of humanity that was happening. Here is this tiny central Asian/eastern European country I'd known nothing about, and to learn about all that has occurred there in the last 20 years? It's just sad on a number of levels. How do more people not know about this?

But amidst the pain and sadness is a finely wrought, character-driven novel that shows that in war and its aftermath, there are few good guys and many bad guys, and there are certainly no winners, but many, many losers.

The "real time" action in this novel occurs over about five days in December 2004 — four years after the official conclusion of the Second Chechen War, but still in the midst of a prolonged insurgency by Chechen rebels. The novel begins with a Chechen man named Dokka being "disappeared" — that is, captured by Russian troops and brought to a torture chamber called the Landfill. But his neighbor Akhmed helps Dokka's 8-year-old daughter escape to a nearby hospital, where a woman named Sonja is the lead doctor. Sonja, though, is trying to hold together her own life. Her younger sister Natasha is missing, and Sonja fears the worst.

Moving back and forth in time, Marra slowly and carefully reveals how all these characters' lives are connected. It's a brilliantly layered, carefully constructed story — as these characters often find out how they're connected with each other, and more importantly, why, at the same instant the reader does. It's powerful, and often very sad.

Part of the point is that in a war-torn country, logic breaks down. When Russians are bombing a Chechen village, a character exclaims to another "We are being liberated." Of course, they're not being liberated, they're being conquered. The villagers then use toilets to cover unexploded ordnance, leaving a patchwork of craters and upside-down toilets in the bombed out village.  
"So many dozens of upside-down toilet bowls crowded the streets that cars wouldn't pass for weeks, and in that time, she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke." 
What an image! Marra is a writer of immense talent — and it's mind-boggling that this is his debut novel.

There are even moments of levity here, that help move the reader along. At the beginning of the novel, when Akhmed brings the young girl to the hospital, he tries to brag that he's also a doctor. Sonja quizzes him about what would he would do with an "unresponsive patient." He replies that he'd give the patient a questionnaire. Sonja just rolls her eyes — how could an unresponsive patient complete a questionnaire? Later, we learn that Akhmed interpretted "unresponsive," to mean a patient who couldn't or wouldn't talk — and so the patient would have to write out answers to question to determine the problem.

This novel is highly recommended, but again, not for the squeamish. And it does take a fair amount of concentration to keep track of how all the pieces are coming together and what the relationships mean. But it's well worth the effort. It's a brilliant novel — one of my favorites of the year. (Don't just take my word for it — it has an average rating of 4.26 on Goodreads.


  1. This book will absolutely make my list of favorites for 2013. Brilliant.

  2. "Character Driven" is a good way to put it - that's basically what I said it my review too. But I must not hve had the right amount of concentration b/c the politics and setting details got past me.

  3. Definitely one of my favorites this year, too. Along with some of the things you mentioned keeping my pace slow, I found I kept going back to re-read some of Marra's incredible passages. I already want to read it again.

    1. Yeah, the man can write - just mind-boggling that this is his debut novel. I did the same thing as you - re-read several passages over and over again. Some of his sentences are, in a word, perfect.

  4. This is one of my favorite books this year. Marra's writing is so beautiful, and I loved slowly discovering the connections between each of the characters. This is definitely one I want to re-read knowing how everything ties together.

    1. It's just amazing to see how it all came together at the end - I'd find myself going back to early chapters to check something, and before I knew it, I'd re-read the whole chapter, just because his writing is so engrossing. I'm sure this is a novel that would be even better on a re-read.