Monday, June 22, 2015
"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra - A stunning literary achievement that will blow your mind and rend your heart
"A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra is one of the most beautifully wrought novels I have read in the past months. It is heart-breaking, for as a reader, I came to care about each of the troubled characters whose stories are told. The author has explained the origin of both the title and the structure of the book, gleaned from a definition of life in a medical dictionary: “'A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.' As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters."
The action takes place primarily in Chechnya as characters are caught in the complex web of hatred and retaliation between Russians and Chechnyans, and also within the Chechnyan community in terms of who can be trusted and who is willing to sell out his neighbor or even a family member for the promise of personal safety. A little girl hiding in the woods watches her father being snatched away by Russian soldiers, Their neighbor, Akhmed, takes her to a place of relative safety, a struggling hospital where the sole remaining physician is a no-nonsense woman by the name of Sonja Rabina. Sonja and her sister have a complex relationship that plays a significant role in the narrative arc of this richly conceived set of stories.
The action unspools around the attempts by Sonja and Akhmed to protect the little girl, Havaa, from those who would want to kill her merely because of her family affiliation and the perceived treachery on the part of her family. Layered into the telling of these stories is a troubled relationship between a father and son who see the complexities of the war through different eyes.
This is at its core an exploration of the power of love to survive as an inextinguishable spark in the midst of the horrors and betrayals of war. Marra's language is rich in imagery and depth of meaning, as this passage demonstrates. The context of this quotation is that Sonja's sister, Natasha, has decided to leave Sonja and the hospital and to strike out on her own to an uncertain future:
"She marched down the service road away from the city, toward to border, on the trodden path of some fifty thousand previous refugees. Where would she go from the camps? Turkey, Armenia, or Azerbaijan most likely, but she would rather go to China or Hawaii, a country where no one could speak Chechen or Russian. She wanted to hold foreign syllables like mints on her tongue until they dissolved into fluency." (Page 332)
This novel is a stunning achievement. Prepare to have your mind blown and your heart assaulted.