Capitol Public Radio’s book club, CapRadio Reads, features a profound, timely, and moving selection when it next meets on Monday, August 12, at 6:30 PM. (At this moment, tickets remain; sign up here.)
Intended or not, Anthony Marra reminds us Americans that we are, indeed, exceptional—at least in one respect.
Thanks to happy geographical accident—being surrounded by two vast oceans and two benign neighbors—and the determination of a few founders and outnumbered clerics to keep religion from becoming a state-sponsored enterprise, we Americans have taken up arms against ourselves only once. In that case, the persecuted and exploited minority was the putative cause, not the casual victim.
Mr. Marra’s soul-searing first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, chronicles life, death, and survival among neighbors in the Chechen village of Eldar between 1994 and 2004, the decade begun and ended by the first and second Chechen Wars, which followed perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
To provide context, a brief historical review. The Caucusus region, between the current republics of Russia and Georgia, has been populated by fiercely independent, autonomous clans—taips—for 30 millenia and “civilized,” in our familiar, “Fertile Crescent” sense, for at least 20. Beginning with the Mongols in the 13th Century, the area has been invaded and fought over in earnest since, from the Ottoman Empire through imperial and Soviet Russia to the Republic of Vladimir Putin. Its population has been overwhelmingly Muslim for 400 years; most of the tiny minority of Russians (25,000 of 1.3 million) identify as Russian Orthodox. For this and other territorial, political, and ethnic reasons, what has been practiced against these people by others (and, on occasion, themselves) over time is certifiable genocide. How they’ve penetrated our consciousness is hardly emblematic. We have been invited to equate “Chechyan/Chechen” with “terrorist” because of:
- President Putin’s classification of them in his first term as “Muslim extremists” after the 9-11 attacks, while at war with them;
- The Beslan school hostage crisis and massacre at the end of the Second Chechan War, perpetrated by a separatist warlord; and
- The yet-to-be determined connection between a Chechyan friend and the accused Boston Marathon bombers.
These are profane snapshots. Marra provides a landscape and portraits. In his Author’s Note, he makes it plain by reference that his is, in fact, a time-told story—and in fiction, as well, by Leo Tolstoy. In Hadji Murat, published posthumously in 1917—the year of the Bolsheviks—the eponymous protagonist is based on an actual separatist guerrilla who forged an uneasy alliance with the Russians to protect his loved ones, a bargain and journey ending in failure and treachery. Marra begins his tale with the same quotation with which Tolstoy opened his:
It was of this death that I was reminded by the crushed thistle in the midst of the plowed field.
Marra further acknowledges Hadji Murat as “among the most powerful of [his] novels” and, in an irony that Dostoevsky, if not Tolstoy, would surely have found sublime, has one of his characters, Akhmed, using his copy to steady a wobbly dresser leg.
And, how beautiful and hardy, though largely ill-fated these human thistles are, who stud this field plowed and replowed by greed, politics, and terror—fueled by blind, eons-old hatred:
- Sofia Andreyevna Rabina—Sonja, with a Swedish “j”—born in Volchansk to ethnic Russian immigrants. An academic wunderkind, she escapes to a London medical residency after her parents die and returns to find the first armistice and her home town crumbling and her sister missing—the first time.
- Her sister, Natasha—the pretty one—who sees her aspirations as a middle-class secretary and for romance in Volchansk evaporate into the descending rubble. She seeks to escape to Western refuge as an au pair, only to find sexual slavery and a heroin addiction. Her estrangement both nourishes and starves Sonja, and herself.
- Akhmed, Eldar’s poorly-performing medical graduate—“the fourth percentile to be precise”—with a gift for portraiture who cares for his bedridden Ula at home and becomes a reluctant savior when his best friend is “disappeared.”
- Khassan, a sequestered academic and historian whose lifelong desire to publish his account of his people’s post-Mongolian history under various boot heels, however compromised, is extinguished by a parade of Communist and post-Soviet bureaucrats.
- His son, Ramzan, robbed of his manhood and loyalty by a pair of wire cutters and his distance from his father, who turns to the role of informant for real sustenance and false comfort.
By and large, these souls spend their days and nights on the Eldar Forest Service Road, the axis between life and death. Life resides at Hospital No. 6, where Sonja, Akhmed, and a “retired 10 years” nurse run a blasted, 500-staff institution. They repair it in ground-floor trauma, welcome it into the critically-injured, fourth-floor maternity ward, and nurture it by hiding eight-year-old Havaa after Ramzan “disappears” Hokka, her father and Akhmed’s best friend. Sonja measures her victories by the numbers of survivable amputations (1,643). Natasha returns to both assist in deliveries and provide context by creating, on the plywood covering the building’s mortar wounds, a panorama of an undamaged square below. Death lives at the Landfill, two cavernous pits where the “disappeared” are dumped by the Feds, pending interrogation, torture, and either mutilation and release or execution. While they wait, the Muslims observe their burial rituals as best they can by inscribing their fellows’ names up the earthen walls, as close to Paradise as they can reach, and packing fresh earth over them when they don’t return. In between, back and forth through 10 years, they live, laugh, weep, love, discover, abandon, and maintain in circumstances that are at best desperate. Somehow, some of them endure; Massa sees to that.
Hopelessness has no permanent address in Eldar, though, because this is the territory of the Russian literary soul—and Marra’s prose is everywhere evocative and faithful. It reflects both fatalistic acceptance and indefatigable optimism, often in the same, bemused space. Akhmed and Havaa return to the ashen remains of her father’s house and legacy, burned by the Feds after his abduction and to building which Akhmed had lent his own hands:
There were these things and the flames ate these things, and since fire doesn’t distinguish between the word of God and the word of the Soviet Communications Registry Bureau, both Qur’an and telephone directory returned to His mouth in the same inhalation of smoke.
Akhmed, stymied by yet another riposte from the guarded Sonja, ruminates:
He stroked his beard, burying his fingers to first knuckle. His fingers found his way to his beard in moments of trouble or indecision, trawling the thick dark hair but rarely touching upon wisdom.
Just before Natasha returns, again, Sonja marks the numbing collisions of senseless extremes her life is measured by, day to day:
Happiness came in moments of unpredictable loveliness. The blind man who played accordion for her as she splinted the broken leg of his guide dog. The boy who narrated his dreams while recovering from meningitis.
Sonja chides Havaa for wanting to be a “sea anemonist” and reciting all the other “-ists” and big words she’d learned from her father:
“It’s important to know big words,” the girl said, repeating her father’s maxim. “No one can take what’s inside your head.”
An insistent new mother bullies Natasha into taking her newborn.
That morning in the cavernous wards, Natasha’s brain finally hushed. When the newborn sniffed strangely at her chest, she stared into its eyes and saw a world only two days old. Those two and a half kilograms righted her, turned her vantage to a future kinder than experience had taught her to expect. The next morning she woke when Sonja woke, left when Sonja left, and the next morning and the next.
There are talismans, too, that connect the characters to one another in simple, mystical ways. An English nutcracker given first by Sonja to her sister as an afterthought becomes her sustenance, and she passes that wooden baton of strength and hope to Havaa. Spitting in the face of official anonymity, Akhmed puts his better skills to work by posting portraits of vanished villagers throughout Eldar to protect their memory. A Russian-made Makarov pistol finds its way arbitrarily from Ramzan the smuggler to Hokka the castle-defender to Natasha, in whose hands it becomes, in the same instant, an instrument of vengeance, justice, and release.
The title derives from a passage in The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians, to which Natasha turned for distraction during Sonja’s London exile:
Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.
After Akhmed disappears, the reluctant angel Sonja resolves to lead Havaa away from Eldar and toward—something.
This is what there is. Scorch marks fanning like massive seashells across the ground. Clouds gathering at the horizon. The unevenness of earth. The small hand she holds in her hand. A hand that is her hand holding a hand that is the girl’s hand. This is it.
Now—about that whole, Civil War slavery thing…