A Constellation of Vital Phenomena–Anthony Marra (Audiobook)


I remember, as a younger person, hearing about the war(s) in Chechnya on the news. I was not sure where Chechnya was, other than a vague sense of the former Soviet bloc. The title of Anthony Marra’s novel comes from a Soviet medical dictionary defining life–a dictionary read by Natasha, left behind in Chechnya by her older sister, the promising medical student given a fellowship in London, in order to draw closer to her absent sister. Natasha, her sister Sonya, young orphaned Haava, her family friend Akhmed, his friends Ramzan and and Dokka, and Ramzan’s father, Khassan are stars in Marra’s constellation. Marra introduces us to Akhmed as he works to bring Haava to safety the morning after her father is taken away by the Feds. He seeks an ethnic Russian surgeon who could sew an army commander’s chest with dental floss–Natasha’s older sister, Sonya. Sonya is a zombie–sleeping in the hospital, popping amphetamines to stay awake, amputating limbs as if she were dealing with choice cuts of beef rather than human beings. Sonya is haunted by the disappearance of her sister, whose story spools out slowly, from her post-traumatic stress syndrome, to her time in an Italian brothel at the hands of sex traffickers kept pacific through heroine, to her recovery and service in the maternity ward of the hospital, to her unbearable loss that led her again to heroine and again to flight as a refugee, to finally her end in the Chechen snow as she refuses to be victimized once more. Haava comes to Sonya with a suitcase of souvenirs with which refugees paid her father for a bed in their home cum refugee hostel, a suitcase no one opens until the last pages of the novel. Her father, Dokka, insisted on payment for a bed, even if the payment was simply a button, a note, a keychain. Dokka, who played chess and taught his daughter that the pieces would tell her where they should move, who beat his friends Akhmed and Ramzan until the night before he first disappeared and lost his fingers. Ramzan, who feels his inferiority to his friends on and off the chess board and who seeks his father’s approval knowing he will never find it. Khassan, whose history of Chechnya, running to thousands of pages, is only published in its first chapter, who becomes an apologist for the Soviets, but berates his son for compromising himself with post-liberation Russians. Akmed, who cares for his bedridden wife and treats the wounds of his village through is poor skills as a doctor as well as his superior skills as an artist. Marra sets these stars in motion and as we zoom in and out from past to present to recent past to distant we begin to see the constellation, the way in which these stars connect. These connections give a bleak story hope. The world around the stars may be filled with cruelty, but the stars are capable of great beauty–and love, love, love.

Finished 7/6/14