A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra-Book

From a Google Image Search – NPR

Reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra was like laying on your back in blackest night and regarding the heavens because the catastrophes that occur in the daytime world require that you escape to somewhere universal and seemingly immutable. Of course, the news brought all of us the fact of Russia’s wars in Chechnya. Marra brings those wars to life offering us characters to get attached to so that the wars become real. Chechens talk about two wars with Russia. Marra’s characters speak of the deportation of Chechens to camps in Russia, they talk of Russia replacing them with ethnic Russians, and then sending the Chechens back to Chechnya before waging a second war against this country which bulges up into Russian territory where it is surrounded by Russians, with Georgia to the south (a separatist state also invaded by Russia at least once). 

It’s a complicated history, all of it since the fall of the USSR, although the Chechen villages are still undeveloped. Chechens find themselves neighbors with relocated Russians, an ethnic dilemma, and a complicated social environment. The two wars leave little time to dwell on ethnic differences and wreak havoc with Chechnya’s economic development. Municipal buildings rise and fall, schools are formed and funded and then become too dangerous to attend and are eventually leveled by bombs and land mines, by Russian soldiers on Chechen soil. Hospitals are supposed to be left alone, but we know that Russia and the Geneva Convention rules have only a passing acquaintance. 

Let’s look through the other end of our telescope or binoculars at the upheaval in just one rural town near Grozny, Chechnya. The town has been destroyed. Just one resident, turned into an informer, has sent his neighbors to the terrible interrogation center in the Landfill where they die or return too broken to rejoin society. Ramzan is the name of this informer, and he did try to hold out against Russian tortures. He made it through his first trip to the Landfill. He could not stay true to his neighbors the second time he was taken. The crimes he reports are all about whether his neighbors are assisting the rebels, who they are assisting because they are fighting to keep Chechnya free.

Let’s focus in on the three or four residents left who live nearest to Ramzan, his neighbor Akhmed, his father Khassan, Akhmed’s wife Ula, and Dokka’s daughter Havaa. They realize they are next on Ramzan’s list. In fact, he has already turned in the names of Dokka and Havaa who offer beds to rebels passing through the village. There seems no where to turn in this story for relief but when Akhmed realizes the danger Havaa (who is ten) is in he takes her to the hospital in Grozny, 11 miles away. There we meet Sonja, and through her we learn the story of her sister Natasha. People live on tenterhooks and life is a precarious state. There is so much more. This is well worth reading. In fact, it’s also a love story.

The book cannot be read without thinking about what is happening in Ukraine, so parallel to what happened in Chechnya. And Russia may not be done with Chechnya yet. Devastation at the hands of Russia has been at the end of Russia’s giant destructive military spray hose trained on any state that separated from the old USSR. Pictures of broken housing, ruined infrastructure are so similar from state to state that it is difficult to decide which war we are looking at. This book humanizes what it is like to live with the existential threat that your home, your comfort, your life, your family could be wiped out at any moment and how difficult it is to escape your fate because of checkpoints and occupying troops. You cannot help but think how you would fare in similar circumstances. The title does not come from the heavens, it comes from a medical text (read the book to see the connection). The medical book defines life as “a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation. War interferes with every one of these life activities.

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