Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

"He is very good at chess," the girl snapped, and glared at Akhmed. Grammar was the only place the girl could keep her father alive, and after amending Akhmed's statement, she leaned back against the the wall and with small, certain breaths, said is is is. Her father was the face of her morning and night, he was everything, so saturating Havaa's world that she could no more describe him than she could the air. 

My first ever review for this blog was Anthony Marra's The Tsar of Love and Techno; given how much I loved it, it's shocking it took me over a year to pick up his first novel. This one is more pervasively dark, but no less emotionally engaging. The novel spans the First and Second Chechen Wars and follows the lives of residents of a small village in the mountains of Chechnya. The narrative spirals through time, with objects (a pebble in a father's palm, a suitcase, a nutcracker) acting as threads to string chapters together and anchor vignettes in time. One of the consequences of this spiraling structure is that we know, almost from the start, who survives and who doesn't. Even minor characters' life spans are often casually laid out when we first meet them, like one woman's father:"He would be wearing that sweater two and a half years later, just north of the border, when a stolen cement mixer would slam into his lorry cabin." This gives the reader the luxury of certainty in stark contrast to the characters who not only are unsure of their own fate, but never know for sure whether a missing loved one is dead or just being tortured somewhere. It eliminates some of the normal suspense of a war novel, allowing you to focus instead on the internality of the characters. It also turns some characters into ghosts, and pushes your energy into hoping that they won't actually meet the fate already laid out for them.

Marra has a knack for haunting visual details: portraits of villagers "disappeared" by the rebels painted on wooden planks and mounted around town; a bombed out maternity ward covered in a painstaking mural of the buildings that used to surround the hospital. Art--as literature, portraiture, murals, and impressively sewn sutures--is the only repository of memory, and the only source of hope in an unbelievably bleak landscape punctuated with horrific violence.

The cadence of Marra's sentences is hypnotic, and he's the only writer I've encountered so far who is able to pull off page-long sentences without sounding pretentious or self indulgent. His writing is studded with visual and aural details that drive each scene home, and his descriptions of people and scenery crawl into your brain and stick there. He uses dialogue sparingly, but when he does he is able to capture tragicomic moments and pin them to the page expertly:
The girl held the stethoscope bell like a microphone and, while kicking a dropping tail of bedsheet, began interviewing Sonja. "What's it like being a surgeon?" she asked.
"Wonderful. Next question."
"Why don't you have kids?"
"They ask too many questions."
"Who did you bribe to get into medical school?"
"Surprisingly, no one at all."
"And are you the only woman surgeon in the world?"
"It feels like it"
"What's your favorite disease?"
"If they let you become a surgeon instead of a wife, would they let me become an arborist instead of a wife?"
"Who's 'they'?"
"You know."
In Chechnya, the "they" is hard to pinpoint. Russian soldiers and kontrakniki, muslim rebels trying to take back their land. There are complex webs of violent corruption connecting and splitting apart each side, and everyone seems hell bent on destroying the country while taking it over. The lives of the characters in this novel are constantly being wrenched back and forth by these various forces, and no one seems to have any control over their day to day life. That being said, Marra manages to find moments of peace and hopes amidst the chaos (while still describing the chaos in vivid detail).

I think I may have enjoyed this even more than The Tsar of Love and Techno. The scope is smaller, so you invest more in the characters, and as a result each victory and defeat is that much more impactful. I also really loved Havaa, the girl in the dialogue above. She's driven and layered in ways that secondary, young, female characters rarely get to be in adult novels.

Note: I knew a superficial amount about Chechnya going into this book, and I had to read a lot more to figure out what was going on (it's enjoyable as a work of fiction without that background, but the all the various aggressors are hard to keep straight without some research). I relied mostly on Wikipedia, so I imagine those with a deeper understanding of the context would get even more out of the book.

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