A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Primary Category: Literature / Fiction
- Field, Steven
- Date of entry: Jan-12-2020
Anthony Marra’s debut novel (published in 2013) is set in Chechnya, the rebellious Caucasus republic that broke away from Russia in 1994, was in short order mired in two wars thereafter, and ultimately lost its independence and was re-incorporated into Russia as a semi-autonomous “federal subject” state. Marra does not ease us into his story, but propels us headlong into it; it is 2004, and eight-year-old Havaa awakens to find that her father Dokka, suspected of aiding Chechen rebels, has been taken away by Russian troops, who have also burned her house to the ground. She is alive only because Akhmed, her neighbor and her father’s friend, has spirited her out of her house in the middle of the night and hidden her in his. Akhmed takes it upon himself to protect Havaa; he knows that the soldiers will be looking for her, because even though the official wars are over, Chechnya remains in the midst of a brutal battle for control, and the policy of the state is to “disappear” not only those it perceives as its enemies, but also their family members.
Akhmed manages to get Havaa to the abandoned local hospital, where he believes she will be safe. The hospital is staffed only by a smart, tough, and competent surgeon named Sonja, assisted by a nurse. Sonja is an ethnic Russian from the area who trained in London and then returned to her homeland. She agrees to shelter Havaa on the condition that Akhmed, who trained as a doctor but is painfully aware of his inadequacies in that profession (he wanted to be an artist), stay on also as her assistant surgeon. Soldiers and civilians on both sides arrive in need of care in a hospital barely functioning, with little in the way of staff or supplies.
Sonja meanwhile is searching for her sister who has disappeared into the chaos of the Chechen wars; she believes that Natasha is alive, but hasn’t heard of her, or from her, in years (we will, in the course of the novel, hear Natasha’s story and learn of another side of the underbelly of this war). She comes to believe that Akhmed may hold a key to Natasha’s whereabouts, and Sonja of course holds the key to whatever measure of safety exists for Havaa—and thus for Akhmed as well. Other locals, a local Chechen historian, his turncoat son, and various governmental and non-governmental functionaries round out the cast in the novel. Akhmed must negotiate in a world where anyone could be an informer, and one person clearly is; where the price for falling into the wrong hands could be death or worse; where federal troops and rebels vie to outdo each other in brutality; and where the rest of the population spends every waking minute simply trying to survive in a lawless society and a landscape gutted by ongoing strife. When the various narrative arcs ultimately link up the ending is a powerful one.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award
Against this backdrop he tells a story of interpersonal relationships, some deep and long-lasting, some forged on the run. When Akhmed assumes responsibility for young Havaa he does so because her father was his friend, and at great personal risk he becomes her protector, a role which gives his existence meaning and purpose, even as he continues to care for the wife who no longer recognizes him. Akhmed is one of the many in-some-way “failed” persons in this book; having studied medicine, he admits that he is a “terrible” doctor who graduated in the lowest tenth of his class and has little stomach for the duties that Sonja assigns him. Sonja, for her part, did very well in her studies; her failure is of a more personal nature. In fact, aside from Havaa, all the characters—heroes and villains alike—have some flaw or failure, often through no fault of their own, as in fact their country has failed in its quest for independence and stability. At the same time, each of them is succeeding in some very important way. The duality leads to a real sense of the humanity of the characters, and the devotion shown by some of them demonstrates the redeeming power of love even in the bleakest of settings. The novel also observes how relationship roles can become fluid in extreme circumstances, and how the plasticity of interpersonal relationships may become a saving grace.