Friday, July 11, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra doesn't make it easy for the reader in this masterful novel, an amazingly accomplished work for a debut novel by a young author. But the payoff is there -- it is a truly moving, enlightening trip to hell and at least part of the way back.

The fact that his novel was passed over for both the Pulitzer and National Book Award shows the futility -- and perhaps the corruption -- of these literary prizes. Whatever merit one finds in the winners, it's worth keeping in the mind that the best books often get overlooked.

Marra leads the reader unflinchingly into the very depths of the inferno, describing five days at the very low point of the rebellion in Chechnya. The reader sees, feels almost, the deprivation, the misery, the fear, and ultimately the harrowing pain of people caught up in a war they never asked for.

Marra brings it down to a single village and town, to six main characters, and tells their story over the five days, flashing back to the past, and, innovatively, into the future. There is Akhmed, the incompetent doctor and would-be artist; Sonja, the ever-so-competent Russian surgeon; Natasha, her sister, sold into prostitution and addiction; Khassan, the local intellectual who treats Akhmed like his son; Dokka, Akhmed's neighbor and friend; and Ramzan, Khassan's son, who turns informer for the Russians.

The narrative shuttles back and forth through time and the reader has to fit the pieces together as they become available. In our book group, someone mentioned that Marra had been criticized for coincidences. But they were not coincidences, only cause and effect, as would have been clear in a chronological narrative. It is a narrative full of artifice, but so artfully done that the reader scarcely notices, caught up in the characters and their harrowing passage.

What is hardest for the reader is not this literary challenge, however, but simply the horror of the Chechnyan rebellion -- the torture, the maiming, the amputations, the "disappearances," the daily terror, the frightening randomness of life and death. It is the complete breakdown of civilized life, with familial devotion and some sense of honor the only threads that keep one going.

The title refers to a medical dictionary's definition of life as a constellation of vital phenomena and that is Marra's whole point. Life does go on, even in these horrific circumstances. There is a past, and there is a future, and the author gives glimpses of both. This is simply a very bad passage in that sweep of individual history. Half of the main characters survive and live on into quieter times; the other half are victims of fate's arbitrary hand. None of them is in control of their lives; they are only, barely, in control of their response to the hands they are dealt.

One of our book group members said he stopped after reading four-fifths of the book because he simply could not face going back to the Landfill -- the open pits where the Russians kept their Chechnyan prisoners for torture -- a second time.

When Marra has his characters look back to a time when buses arrived at busstops to take people to work, where the local hospital had one of the best oncology departments in the Soviet Union, when the deprivation of war makes one pine for "the relative generosity of totalitarianism," he raises the question of whether freedom is always worth it. It is not a rhetorical question. Were Chechnyans better off in the Soviet Union or even under the yoke of the Russian Federation? Were Iraqis better off under Saddam Hussein? Were Egyptians happier under Mubarak?

In our group, a recent visitor to Cuba said many people there had told him they were quite happy under Castro. The had the basic necessities of life and as much as their neighbors.

Marra doesn't broach any of these questions. He tells a story about people. But in showing every painful detail of their lives, he plants the questions in the mind of the reader. His characters are too busy surviving to philosophize. That is left to us after we've put the book down and taken a deep breath.

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