The clunky title of Anthony Marra’s emotionally devastating and beautifully written debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is taken from the definition of “Life” in a Soviet-era medical dictionary. In the novel’s unforgettable portrayal of Chechnya’s recent wars, the ruthless Russian “Feds” wreak havoc, extinguishing one constellation of vital phenomena after another. Marra, who grew up in D.C. and now lives in Oakland, Calif., recreates the bloody Chechnya of the 1990s and 2000s, when separatists fought two wars with Russia in an unsuccessful bid to secede, and movingly depicts the travails of what one character calls “this sliver of humanity the world seemed determined to forget.”
Marra, who won a Whiting Writers’ Award in 2012—given annually to 10 emerging writers—uses the Russian army’s arrest of Dokka, a 30-something widower and father of an 8-year-old girl, to examine the lives of several people in the village of Eldar and the nearby city of Volchansk. A panoptic narrator adopts the perspective of one character after another, enriching the story with a multiplicity of viewpoints.
In Eldar, Akhmed, who has a sickly wife to tend to, nevertheless grabs his friend Dokka’s daughter Havaa—who sought refuge in the nearby woods when the Russians snatched her father and burned down their house—and spirits her off to Volchansk. The Russians will look for her in Eldar, so Akhmed, who barely graduated from medical school, strikes a deal with the Volchansk hospital’s only doctor, a Russian named Sonja; if she keeps Havaa, he will work for her. Sonja, though harried and worried sick about the fate of her drug-addict sister Natasha, who has walked out of her life for the second time, accepts. Havaa and Akhmed gradually coax Sonja out of her self-protective cocoon of numbness and sarcasm.
Meanwhile, Ramzan, the informer who submitted Dokka’s name to the Russians, sniffs about for Havaa and suspects that Akhmed is protecting her. Ramzan’s father, Khassan, is crushed by his son’s actions: “His face was broken in a way Akhmed couldn’t look at, let alone understand, let alone mend.”
The motivation behind Ramzan’s collaboration is never fully clarified, especially as he initially rejected informing, was tortured unspeakably, and following his release became a gunrunner for the rebels. When he is captured a second time and abused once more, but then released again, why doesn’t he join the rebels as an actual fighter?
Otherwise, Marra’s handling of the material proves remarkably assured. The characters are sharply defined but multidimensional, and their carefully plotted, intersecting paths build momentum. (Even the frequent shifts in time work—though one must note the year indicated on the first page of each chapter.) And all the while, Marra lays out a near-apocalyptic landscape that will not soon recede from memory. At one point, surveying the destruction all around him, Akhmed wonders if this is what Marx’s utopian vision of the end of history looks like in reality: “Perhaps here was where history had reached its final epoch,” he muses. “A civilization without class, property, state or law. Perhaps this was the end.”
Anthony Marra reads and signs copies of his book May 13 at Politics & Prose.