Go ahead and sneer at the thin atmosphere of America’s MFA programs, but this Washington-born graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is a testament to the vibrancy of contemporary fiction. Here, in fresh, graceful prose, is a profound story that dares to be as tender as it is ghastly, a story about desperate lives in a remote land that will quickly seem impossibly close and important.
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” opens in a tiny, blood-soaked village of Chechnya, that part of the world that drifts into our consciousness only briefly — when, say, the Russians crush it again or, more recently, when young zealots detonate pressure cookers in Boston. But the unforgettable characters in this novel are not federalists or rebels or terrorists. They aren’t particularly religious or political; we see only glimpses of loyal Russian officers or fanatical Muslims. Instead, these are just fathers and mothers and children — neighbors snagged in the claws of history.
The book begins with a sentence that forecasts both the horror and the whimsy ahead: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” Havaa, we learn, is 8 and now almost certainly orphaned. “She had the pale, waxen skin of an unripe pear,” Marra writes. Her father, who nurtured her curiosity with extravagant affection, was an arborist who had lost his fingers in a previous encounter with the Feds and a pair of bolt cutters. When he was gagged with duct tape and bundled away for good, Havaa avoided assassination by sneaking out of the house and hiding in the snow. But those thugs will be back, fulfilling a new order to murder the family members of anyone suspected of sympathizing with rebel forces.
The complicated moral hero of this tale is an incompetent peasant doctor named Akhmed, who lives across the street. More comfortable drawing portraits than blood, he is determined to save his old friend’s daughter, though “she seemed an immense and overwhelming creature whom he was destined to fail.” His only choice is to spirit Havaa out of the village, where the sole remaining career choices are running guns for the rebels or informing for the Russians. Acting on a rumor from a refugee who passed through months earlier, he takes Havaa to an all-but-abandoned hospital in a nearby town that looks “like a city made of shoeboxes and stamped into the ground by a petulant child.”
On one level, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” covers just five days in 2004. But these are people shaken from the linear progress of time. Their experiences come to us in pungent flashbacks of trauma and joy — meals and games, marriages and affairs, offenses small and shocking that knit their lives together. Each chapter begins with the date highlighted on a timeline that runs from 1994 to 2004, jumping forward and backward, sometimes creating new mysteries, sometimes solving old ones.
Other references draw us outside that 10-year range. A scholar in the village toils his whole life on a history of “this sliver of humanity the world seemed determined to forget.” At more than 50,000 pages, the old man’s manuscript flows from a kind of mania, reaching further and further back to avoid the ire of Russian censors. But then, too, there are moments of mercy in this tale, grace notes when Marra casually alludes to what certain characters will be doing far in the future; yes, he assures us, some of these people you care about — or loathe — will live deep into the 21st century.
Marra, who has traveled through Chechnya, re-creates Akhmed and Havaa’s village in the hard, spare elements of wood and snow and blood. For all the bizarre images and incidents he describes, he stays rooted in the concrete insanity of this conflict, this unstanchable wound on Europe’s eastern side. We see unexploded bombs lying in the street covered with toilet bowls,a clown crying in a basement during an aerial assault,a soldier insisting his prisoners wear seat belts on their way to a death camp. But these aren’t the quirky ornaments that floated through “The Tiger’s Wife,” Téa Obreht’s dreamy first novel about a doctor in the war-torn Balkans. In “A Constellation,” the surreal has been stamped into flesh and bone.
Marra was guided by, among other books, the work of assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. This is a land once forcibly emptied by the U.S.S.R., then officially repopulated, and now being savaged by guerrilla attacks and merciless retaliations. Two years before the novel opens, 41 villagers were “disappeared” in a single day, shot in the forest or trucked off to be tortured to death in a place only Hieronymus Bosch or the godchildren of Stalin could imagine.
Be warned: There’s a section of “A Constellation” splattered with viscera that will scar your conscience and remind you what the United States risks by blurring the hard-won moral and legal prohibitions against torture. Driving this intense tragedy is an ordinary man, Ramzan, a young neighbor who was poisoned by pain, driven to accept his role as village rat. In pages of almost unreadably creative abuse, Marra takes us into the crucible where bodies and minds are crushed and the elixir of betrayal is purified. “We are the children of wolves,” Ramzan says. “I recognize you,” his father thinks. “We twist our souls around each other’s miseries.”
The almost-empty hospital where Akhmed hides Havaa provides a weird alternative world to the grim village. Staffed by a single nurse, a one-armed guard and a Russian surgeon searching for her sister, it’s a madhouse but also a sanctuary, where strands of absurdity and realism mingle without clashing. From the infinite black space of despair emerges “a constellation of vital phenomena,” an arresting definition of “life” found in an old medical textbook. Marra isn’t above offering snatches of comic banter among this ragtag staff too foolish or compassionate to flee. The surgeon, who assumes she has cauterized her affections, spars with Akhmed in a way that tempts us to anticipate some romantic engagement, maybe even a little happiness.
As the elements of this complicated plot begin to align in ways too tragic and moving to anticipate, the past resolves into focus; the future is freighted with anguish but flecked with hope. I haven’t been so overwhelmed by a novel in years. At the risk of raising your expectations too high, I have to say you simply must read this book.
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On Monday, Anthony Marra will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919.