A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
by Anthony Marra
384 pp. Hogarth. $26
Anthony Marra’s extraordinary first novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” opens with a disappearance typical of postmodern warfare, cobbled to an image completely alien to it: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” This fusion of the desperate with the whimsical sets the tone.
In the background are the Chechen wars, a staggeringly destructive pair of conflicts pitting the army of post-Soviet Russia against Chechen guerrillas who were sometimes supported by visiting Arab jihadis. Marra’s timeline runs from 1994 to 2004, but the larger story is much, much deeper. This novel is, among other things, a meditation on the use and abuse of history, and an inquiry into the extent to which acts of memory may also constitute acts of survival.
For Marra’s characters, the odds against survival are high. The disappearance of Havaa’s father comes near the end of a 10-year sequence of similar events that have devastated the tiny village of Eldar. But for the time being, 8-year-old Havaa is saved by a neighbor, Akhmed, who walks her to the reluctant care of the last doctor in the bomb-shattered hospital of the nearby city of Volchansk.
Sonja, the doctor, is an ethnic Russian whose grandparents moved to Volchansk as part of the Stalinist colonization of the region. She is so skilled and resourceful she can successfully stitch a gaping chest wound with dental floss. Akhmed, an ethnic Chechen, is a drastically underqualified doctor with a talent for drawing, who has spent his life in such extreme isolation that he has Ronald McDonald mixed up with Ronald Reagan. Yet the lives of both are tormented by loss.
Akhmed’s wife has been in a vegetative state since the Russian military first ravaged Eldar. Havaa’s father was his closest friend. Fundamentally incompetent to stem the flow of medical trauma that war brings to his village, Akhmed has taken to painting portraits of the dead and the vanished and hanging them around the neighborhood — one of a number of semi-surreal acts of remembrance the novel has to offer. Sonja, meanwhile, is desperate to find her sister, who has disappeared from Volchansk (for a second time) about a year before. The delicate web of connection among these characters takes the novel’s whole length to reveal itself.
During their childhood, Sonja is the smart sister, Natasha the pretty one. With Sonja in a London medical school and both their parents dead, Natasha finds herself alone as Volchansk begins to collapse in the escalation of the first Chechen war. Aware that despite her Russian ethnicity she’ll fare ill in the oncoming Russian invasion, she becomes the agent of her own first disappearance, turning herself over to a broker of “au pairs.” Though she knows she’ll really become a prostitute, Natasha still hopes this maneuver may help her rejoin Sonja in London. “Make me an au pair,” she tells her sex trafficker. “Make me reappear.”
But chances of reappearance in wartime are thin. Bargaining with Sonja for Havaa’s shelter, Akhmed volunteers his services to the shattered hospital — staffed only by Sonja and a single nurse, with whom Akhmed sorts the clothing of the dead. They discover a note with instructions for burial sewn into a pair of trousers, but the nurse tells Akhmed the owner is “already in the clouds” of the city crematorium. When Akhmed (who has a similar note in one of his own seams) wants to pursue the matter, she shows him a box of identity documents “layered eight deep. . . . ‘He’s one of these,’ she said.” This peripheral victim has disappeared before the reader ever met him, to be remembered only by the novelist, who spins out a thin strand of his story: “That man had a sister in Shali who would have given her travel agency, . . . her parents-in-law and nine-tenths of her immortal soul to hold that note now lying at the bottom of the trash can, if only to hold the final wish of the brother she regretted giving so little for in life.”
The novel is peppered with these short detours into the pasts or futures of characters who momentarily cross paths with the principals. It’s one of Marra’s ways of holding the value of human wishes against their vanity. There’s a constant impulse to retrieve and affirm what was, though acts of remembrance are themselves evanescent. Akhmed contemplates his demented wife: “As a web is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what was no longer there.” His portraits of the lost dissolve quickly to “no more than two eyes, a nose and a mouth fading between the trees.” Natasha, briefly reunited with her sister in Volchansk between the two wars, painstakingly draws, where a window once was, the view that existed before the landscape was reduced to rubble. The suitcase Havaa saves from her burning house is full of relics of the refugees her father used to shelter. These become meaningless for want of a provenance, except for a Buckingham Palace guard nutcracker, once given to Natasha by Sonja, then to Havaa by Natasha during her second flight from Volchansk (hoping this time to outdistance heroin addiction).
Another of Akhmed’s neighbors decides finally to burn his “six-volume, 3,300-page historical survey of the Chechen lands,” telling Akhmed: “History writes itself. It doesn’t need my assistance.” His personal history includes his having brought home the bones of his parents in a suitcase during the 1956 repatriation of exiled Chechens from Kazakhstan, and the fact that his son is the informer who brought about the disappearance of Havaa’s father, among many others, and will eventually inform on Akhmed as well.
This son (for whom Marra creates a surprising amount of sympathy) tells Akhmed close to the end: “They won’t ask you where the girl is. They will make you bring her to them, and you will watch yourself do it. . . . Once I was like you, and soon you will be like me.” Here is the most dreadful disappearance of all: destruction of the self under torture. This novel plentifully displays the very worst of human capability. In the interrogation pits somewhere between Volchansk and Eldar, fingers and testicles chopped off with bolt cutters are only the beginning.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Under the rain of atrocity it portrays, this novel’s generally optimistic tone can sometimes seem downright bizarre. Some other recent works have adopted this attitude of infinite resignation (“The Known World,” by Edward P. Jones, and “Half of a Yellow Sun,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name two), but Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy, whose Chechnya-set novel, “Hadji Murad,” is mentioned several times in this one. “Constellation” might be a 21st-century “War and Peace,” except, as the informer warns, there’s no real peace available: “They will kill Havaa and call it peace.”
While reminding us of the worst of the war-torn world we live in, Marra finds sustainable hope in the survival of a very few, and in the regenerative possibility of life in its essential form, defined by a medical textbook passage that Sonja and Natasha read at different times. In her darkest moments, Sonja sees her life as “an uneven orbit around a dark star, a moth circling a dead bulb,” but against that image is the textbook definition: “a constellation of vital phenomena — organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”