Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wednesday, March 6, 2013: Maximum Shelf: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Hogarth: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Hogarth: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Hogarth: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Hogarth: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra

"It was of this death that I was reminded by the crushed thistle in the midst of the plowed field." The last line of Hadji Murad, Tolstoy's near-perfect novella and his final work about an Avar rebel commander among Muslim Chechans and their Russian occupiers, is also the epigraph to Anthony Marra's stunning, dazzlingly good first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

It's set in Eldar, Chechnya, in 2004. Eldar, the "type of village one would only stumble upon when lost," is suffering horribly under the vicious rule of the Russians. The novel begins: "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father [Dokka], Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones." Dokka's close friend and neighbor, Akhmed, found the eight-year old girl hiding nearby in the forest, sitting on the already-packed suitcase her father had told her to always keep by her door. "He held her like a bundle of loose sticks in his arms, carried her to his house and with a damp towel wiped the ash from her forehead." They must leave before the Feds return; they step out into the cold and snow and begin walking, careful to avoid mines. To Akhmed, "she seemed an immense and overwhelming creature whom he was destined to fail."

He takes her to the hospital in Volchansk where he was born; the city looked like it was "made of shoeboxes and stamped into the ground by a petulant child." Here he meets Sonja Andreyevna Rabina, an ethnic Russian and an accomplished surgeon, the last of a staff of 500; she has amputated 1,643 legs. Living on pills, she's "engulfed by the burden of care," as devastated as her hospital, worried about her missing sister, Natasha. She takes pity on them and lets them stay. Akhmed, a barely capable doctor in his village, can help her.

The novel takes place over five days, but the telling weaves in and out of the previous eight years. In those chapters we learn Sonja was educated overseas and returned to help her country's wounded. She cares for her sister who is an addict. She works a deal with a smuggler to get badly needed supplies, as well as books on psychology that might help her "treat" Natasha. We also learn about Khassan, who for years has been writing a 44,388-page history of his country, and his son, traitorous Ramzan, who turns in townspeople--they "disappear." The day Dokka was taken by the Feds the first time and later returned from the Landfill with all of his fingers gone (removed with a bolt cutter), while "Ramzan was only missing his hat," was the last day Khassan spoke to his son. Akhmed cauterized the ends with a heated butcher's blade; he felt like a man "asked to put out a forest fire with only the water he could carry in his mouth."

Marra's recounting of Khassan leaving a prison camp in 1956 after Stalin fell and going to retrieve the bodies of his parents from a nearby cemetery is almost unbearable: "They were lighter than he expected.... He packed them tenderly within the discolored suitcase lining" and took them home for burial. Hundreds more were there to "return their dead, and the dust reddened the night." The book is filled with such closely observed, beautifully told incidents. Evil returns to Chechnya in the '90s. A friend of Sonja's tells her that Stalin has been resurrected. "I know," Sonja replied, "He's the prime minister of Russia."

Marra takes us on an extraordinary journey into a world little known to many of us, into the intersecting lives and minds of its wretched people. Like Tolstoy's thistle, he tells us of little things that carry great significance: a chess set, a kinzhal knife, a portrait attached to a tree, a Makarov pistol. He slowly unfolds his story's past and present with a balanced sureness and a subtlety rare in a first novel, with a rhythm that is graceful and welcoming. Comparisons will be made to The Tiger's Wife, The Orphan Master's Son and Lost City Radio--all debut novels, all set in foreign lands, each one powerful and affecting--and rightfully so. The best novels take you into a world so full and realized, so gratifying and satisfying, that you don't want to leave and are saddened when, with the novel's end, you are banished from it. But you take that world with you and can revisit it in memory whenever you want.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena creates such a world. Although it's sometimes horrific in its painful telling, it's also beautiful, heartbreaking and filled to the brim with the vital "human matter" of life. It may be the best new novel you'll read this year. --Tom Lavoie

Hogarth, $26, hardcover, 9780770436407, May 7, 2013

Crown: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra: Showing the Scope of Lives

photo: Smeeta Mahanti

Anthony Marra is the author of the novel A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaHe has won a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Atlantic's Student Writing Contest and the Narrative Prize and his work has appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

Where did the idea for the novel come from? Were all your characters there from the beginning?

I've been fascinated with Chechnya ever since I was a college student in Russia. But the novel really began for me with the image of a surgeon waking up in a hospital room and walking into the corridor where two strangers waited for her. I followed the surgeon into the corridor and then into the novel, and over time I met the other characters populating it.

Did you have to do quite a bit of research on the history of Chechnya before starting the novel?

I began researching a few years before I even thought of writing the novel, and I continued as I wrote, culminating with a trip to Chechnya as I finished the book. The politics of the Chechen wars were less relevant than the day-to-day existence of civilians, and so I found memoirs, testimony and on-the-ground reportage by people like Khassan Baiev, Anna Politkovskaya, Andrew Meier, Sebastian Smith and Åsne Seierstad to be the most useful.

The novel has an unusual title. How did that come about?

The title, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, comes from the medical dictionary definition of life. Life is structured as a constellation of six vital phenomena--organization, irritability, growth, movement, reproduction and adaptation--much as the novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.

The book is so well written, filled with lyrical and gorgeous prose. Did you work hard on the novel's style? Did you see the style as a counter to the often brutal and harsh subject matter?

Absolutely. Language is the blueprint a reader relies on to reconstruct the novel's physical and emotional world, and so I tend to think that the power of fiction begins with the power of sentences. So yes, many rewrites went into honing the tone and style, and building out an omniscient voice that is flexible enough to jump between characters and years. By showing the larger scope of their lives, the way their individual stories are woven together into something larger, I hoped to suffuse even the novel's darker moments with its characters' humanity.

Were there any parts of the novel that were especially difficult to write?

Having only been on the patient side of the doctor's desk, I struggled with the finer points of a surgeon's day-to-day life. I slogged through a few dense medical papers, and eventually relied on a surgeon and a physician who each read a draft and kindly pointed out where I missed the mark.

How did you decide on the novel's structure?

I've always been drawn to tapestry-like novels that entwine characters and stories in wonderful and unforeseen ways, such as The Known World and The English Patient. In Constellation, I wanted to write a novel with arms wide enough to gather together its many characters, to explore how their lives are enmeshed in ways they might not individually understand. While the main action of the novel unfolds over the course of five days, it moves back through time over a 10-year period (and occasionally jumps years into the future), as it shifts between characters who search for, flee from, collide with, and find one another. In that sense I hope the novel mirrors at a structural level the process of recovery and reclamation that many of its characters seek.

Were you influenced by other books? By Russian or Chechen literature?

Tolstoy's final novel, Hadji Murad, set during the Caucasian Wars of the mid-19th century, casts a broad shadow over just about everything that has been written about Chechnya since. With good reason. The novel is beautiful and no less powerful for its brevity. In it Tolstoy writes across lines of ethnicity, gender and class with a generosity I've tried to draw from in writing of the more recent Russo-Chechen conflict.

Your characters are so vivid. Who's your favorite and why?

If I had to choose, I'd probably say Sonja, who has from the beginning been my guide. She's brilliant, tough, unsentimental, ambitious, and adamantly defies the expectations of her patriarchal society. Also, the narrative style allows for minor characters to have richer lives then their role in the novel would otherwise suggest. Some of my favorites include an exuberantly apocalyptic bus driver, a blind father and his deaf son who together find a way to prosper, and a hallucinatory Bee Gees fan.

Did your work at Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow help shape the novel in any way?

The Stegner Fellowship provided time to work on the novel and feedback from generous, sharp readers.

You're off to a good start. What's next for Anthony Marra?

I'm currently working on linked stories that look at the legacy of the Soviet Union (and the Chechen Wars) from the Russian perspective. --Tom Lavoie

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