By Ed Taylor

News Book Reviewer

So if someone slammed you into a headlock and said, “tell me where Chechnya is,” could you?

This small landlocked republic in the Caucasus is surrounded by Georgia, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Russia, with the mammoth last of those being the benighted country’s oppressive tormentor – for political, ethnic and religious reasons – for centuries. The 20th century Soviet era represented a genocidal low point in Russia’s abuse of this particular satellite.

The post-Communist era has not lessened the upheaval and catastrophe faced by the country’s residents, at least those who have not yet fled, as Russia fights what it deems a counter-terror campaign against a continuing religious-ethnic insurgency there.

Maybe given Chechnya’s poisoned past and present, it’s perhaps not a surprise that it enters the world’s attention mainly for bad news and occasional pop culture moments such as the famous “Sopranos” episode “The Pine Barrens,” featuring an unkillable Russian whose indomitability was by implication a side effect of having soldiered in Russia’s Chechen campaign. Now in a marvelous example of art’s power to bring light to darkened places comes “The Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” an extraordinary first novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate (and Washington, D.C., native) Anthony Marra – also providing another demonstration of the world’s synchronicity, arriving as it does in the era since the Boston Marathon bombings allegedly carried out by brothers with Chechen roots.

This novel embodies the idea of art as vital to understanding of lives and cultures other than ours not available via journalism or history writing. Art at its best provides experience, not descriptions of experience, and that rendering and the subsequent emotional truth that the reader actually lives through offer meaning and wisdom not available anywhere else.

Marra here tells a story stretching from 1994 to 2004, set in Chechnya and woven around the pole of “the two wars,” the two most recent formal campaigns in which Russia invaded in response to perceived threats. The novel is divided into three parts, and the parts separate into chapters, alternately moving up and down the timeline of the decade from the past to the present to past in a disjunctive, non-linear narrative – reflecting the shattered nature of the place, where even time is unreliable and broken and treacherous.

Part 1 begins “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” The Feds here are Russian government soldiers, and Havaa is a bright 8-year old, whose widowed father Dokka had all 10 of his fingers cut off with bolt cutters the last time he was “taken.” Her father loved trees and when there were jobs had been an arborist. Havaa, fascinated by sea anemones, wants to be a “sea anemonist.” Unable to work fingerless, Dokka took in refugees fleeing the fighting, who paid with whatever they had: food and books, travel souvenirs and kitchenware, and, very occasionally, with money.

Havaa lives in a tiny village outside the city of Eldar. The Feds had also come for Havaa, implementing their scorched-earth policy concerning those they regarded as suspicious, but Dokaa shoves Havaa out the back door as the Fed personnel carriers are thundering in and she is rescued by a neighbor, Akhmed, the town doctor. Akhmed is one of a trio of best friends in their 30s with Dokka, and with Ramzan – who became an informant after his own visit to the site where prisoners are taken, where Dokka’s fingers were taken: the Landfill.

The Landfill is an unfinished landfill where the Russian Army keeps prisoners in open air at the bottom of giant flooded pits A and B, with victims waiting for the call from above that means climbing the 61-rung metal ladder sunk into the pit’s side, back to the top to be tortured or killed, or both, or tortured and released.

After the Feds destroy Havaa’s previous life, Akhmed and Havaa walk through the snow, watching every step for the bumps in the white that indicate landmines, avoiding rebel patrols and Federal checkpoints, to the hospital in Eldar; at four stories the tallest building in the city because international law and the Geneva Convention prohibit shelling or rocketing of medical facilities.

Akhmed picks the hospital because there’s nowhere else to go, and he believes that the woman doctor who directs the hospital – and is its only doctor – will at least let Havaa hide there until something else can be figured out.

What follows is the story of Havaa and Akhmed, who goes to work in the hospital, and Sonja the doctor; and of Sonja’s sister Natasha, who tries to immigrate from Chechnya and is swallowed up as a commodity in the world of international sex trafficking; and of Ramzan and Khassan, Ramzan’s 79-year-old father, facing the Abrahamic choice of sacrificing his son to save others – with all these stories woven into a narrative of startling, poetic, delicate language delineating horrors and abuse, physical and psychological trauma, catastrophe and violence and unimaginable loss of everything it’s possible to lose.

And yet in this dark world there is light, like sun shafts through bullet holes, and understanding, and redemption, and humor, and love, as Marra shifts backward and forward in time with the characters and their world. The writing here is wise and beautiful, if occasionally didactic or explanatory, and Marra truly sings here in a voice unusually strong and evocative.

Marra is especially good in limning inner states and fine shadings of emotion and understanding among the characters in extremis here. One of the ways he is able to redeem the story from a potential black hole of despair is using the trick of, in asides, spinning out the future consequences of acts and lives, showing that ends are not always the end. “She would die at the age of 103, in the geriatrics ward of Hospital No. 6, in a room that had been the director’s office, then Sonja’s bedroom, and finally a regular hospital room, a room Havaa would remember as many thousands of refugees remembered her own childhood bedroom, a room that had been there when it was needed.”

And this is a novel that we need.


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

By Anthony Marra


377 pages, $26

Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.