A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
I confess to knowing nothing about the conflict in Chechnya. Okay, like many Americans (I’m assuming) I know a little. I know Chechen rebels took hostages in a Moscow theater. I know the Boston Marathon bombers were radicalized ethnic Chechen-Americans. But my eyes always glazed over whenever PBS News Hour featured a story on the wars and although I’m a daily NPR listener, I turned a deaf ear to any news Chechen. If you’d asked me to find it on the map, I couldn’t.
But like all good fiction, Anthony Marra’s extraordinary novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena touched both my mind and my heart. (I have a list of articles to read about Russia’a involvement in Chechnya, and God bless Wikipedia for a quick tutorial.)
Spanning ten years and both Chechen wars, Marra tells the story of three neighboring families in the small village of Eldar, as well as two sisters in Volchansk. The novel opens with neighbor Dokka taken away in the night by Russian Feds to the Landfill (that name says it all), his house burned, and neighbor Akhmed hurrying Dokka’s eight-year-0ld daughter Havaa to safety at the city hospital in Volchansk.
There they meet the head surgeon Sonja (who also happens to be the only surgeon), and she is none to pleased to find them in her waiting room. Akhmed makes the case that since he did attend medical school years ago, he might be of some use–even though he graduated in the bottom three percent of his class. Anything to find sanctuary for Havaa. Sonja, an ethnic Russian, runs on amphetamines, cigarettes, and contempt. But she’s desperate for help. She’s also desperate to find her sister Natasha, gone for nearly two years to where Sonja doesn’t know.
Havaa spends her days trailing Sonja or simply sitting in the waiting room clutching her blue suitcase of souvenirs, flotsam and jetsam that refugees had given her father as payment for a night (or two) in their house on the way to refugee camps. Havaa doesn’t open her suitcase until the end of the novel, and when she does, she reveals a poignant surprise.
Tucked next to Akhmed’s house is the old professor Khassan, who has spent most of his life writing a history of the Chechen people, and his informant son Ramzan, who has made eleven villagers disappear, but whose trade as a snitch keeps the electricity on, food in the refrigerator, and Khassan’s insulin needs supplied. Father and son haven’t spoken in months, but it is Ramzan’s last betrayal that sets the story in motion.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a sweeping novel that uncovers the characters’ pasts and propels them into the future. Each chapter is set in one of the ten years the book covers and the alternating stories require the reader’s close attention. It’s also a difficult book to read. There’s nothing easy about torture. Sex slavery. Dismemberment. Murder. But it’s a story about love as much as it is about hate. About what connects us as much as what divides us. Most of us experience (at some point or another) estrangement from those we love dearly, and Marro’s long view gives us hope.
Marra’s writing is lush and evocative, his storytelling tender, the ending oh-so-satisfying. I’m only sorry A Constellation of Vital Phenomena sat neglected on my TBR pile for so long.