A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Marra, Anthony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
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.


For many Americans the Chechen wars of 1994-96 and 1999-2000, and the simmering conflicts which followed, were battles that played out at the periphery of our national consciousness.  They took place in a small and little-known corner of Russia where rebels led by local warlords were fighting an ultimately doomed action against a powerful central government, and the conflict then extended into a background news cycle punctuated by episodes of hostage-taking (think the Beslan school crisis and the Moscow theater hostage crisis) as well as by other terrorist activities against civilian populations (think the bombing of the Moscow metro).   Marra sets his novel over the course of five days in 2004 in post-war Chechnya, and it is apparent that although the war is officially over, the battles are not.  There is residual destruction, there is famine, there is dislocation of populations, there are shortages of everything; most of all, there are fear and uncertainty.  It is winter, in more ways than one. 

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. 

Akhmed seeks refuge for Havaa in a hospital, the only semi-functioning institution in the area.  The hospital is a place which remains neutral (it treats the sick of both sides of the struggle) in a world—the world of medicine—which is supposed to be above local politics.  Marra’s description of surgeries and other treatments done under suboptimal conditions is well-done; the characterizations of Sonja and her nurse assistant ring true, especially when Sonja, having trained at excellent hospitals in London, questions her decision to return to her embattled homeland to work in such primitive and corrupt surroundings which often require her to “play the game” in the service of the greater humanitarian good.  In fact, Sonja and Akhmed serve as counterpoints to each other as physician types, and we observe their ability to reach accommodation with each other—and realize that each needs the other for very specific reasons.

The novel is not just about Akhmed, Sonja, and Havaa; other characters are also well (if more briefly) fleshed-out, and we get caught up in their stories as well.  They are all caught in the same process:  the dehumanizing effects of war and hatred, the need to scrape out an existence close to the bone, the desire to do better which sometimes can only be brought about by unsavory means.  None of them is perfect and none—even the informer—is beyond redemption, or at least sympathy.  The reader comes away with a sense of profound respect for these people as well as profound sadness for the situation overall.   

The author lived and studied for a time in St. Petersburg, where he became aware of the Chechen conflict, and his knowledge of the history and culture of Chechnya seems to be extensive.  He also renders the Chechens, a people whom the news media often described as guerillas and rebels, with sympathy and affection.  But Marra’s novel is not just about what it says, but how it says it.  The writing is clear and often distinctly beautiful, especially in its descriptions of nature (the summit of a mountain range “cuts the sky,” birds’ wings claw the air), and at other times matter-of-fact (which makes it all the more powerful) in its handling of the horrors of the Chechen situation.  He uses the literary technique of moving backward and forward in time to tell the various characters’ backstories and side-stories, a technique that could have been confusing were it not for his narrative skill and the timeline at the beginning of each chapter to reorient us to the year.  And the author adroitly knits his narrative threads into the novel’s breathtaking climax.

In sum, this is a beautifully written exposition of the human condition in a hellish environment, and of the way in which people find—or sometimes, claw out—meaning in their lives.  A very worthwhile read.


 Winner of the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award



Place Published

New York

Page Count