This book is a small nightmare. Actually, if there was a word for something that was between a dream and a nightmare, this book would be it. Maybe that’s what a “constellation” is because the only way we see stars is when they’re dying, but they light the world from under a blouse of black. As my students say, this book had me “feelin’ some type of way” about the world, about war, about who they let into top MFA programs, about how little I know about world history beyond my favorite moments in history, and about how we divide people into categories and them judge them by these labels regardless of if we’ve known them outside of those labels for most of our lives.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is a book about the first and second wars in Chechnya which were just a few years ago. The wars dated from 1994 to 2009. There’s a three year break between the two wars, but I think it’s safe to say that there was so much tension during those three years that people weren’t able to feel safe in that short amount of time. It’s sad that I grew up exactly during these two wars and yet I have no idea that they even existed. As a US citizen, I’ve been bred to believe that war is this: sparse acts of terrorism that force us to send bodies shaped by lighting arteries and vessels overseas. These bodies come back raw with tattoos and memories that cause post-traumatic stress disorder. Never would I have imagined (other than the things we hear very little about happening in sections of Africa and North Korea) that genocide and torture were still such huge aspects of our world. We call a collection of people a humanity, I think it’s our most pure job as a species in this collection to learn about the way the world is treating the rest of us. We should always want to learn and I think reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is just the start of my research into these wars that I knew nothing about before migrating, amputating, torturing, silencing, and living with the people of these small towns.
“As someone whose days were defined by the ten thousand ways a human can hurt, she needed, now and then, to remember that the nervous system didn’t exist exclusively to feel pain.” – Anthony Marra, 273
As most war novels are, this book was tough to read. I had to fight my way through it just to be able to finish it in three weeks. Marra wrote the characters based on ‘courageous testimonies’ and it comes alive through their moments and years within the story. There are so many small connections that mean everything as the book unfolds. I can’t even tell you how many people came in a paragraph and were removed by the end of the period, yet I know what they were doing seven years after the war when they refused to tell their wife about the scar shaped like a grin on their chest. Then, there were characters that stayed throughout the novel, even if they weren’t a part of the present. Natasha came in and out of her role as Sonja’s sister. This was because of her forced drug use and her need of freedom. Sonja ran the hospital in a world where women were not given control of anything. Akhmed who saved Havaa, the daughter of his best friend, Dokka. Khassan, who was by far my favorite character and his son Ramzan lived across the street. I especially connected to Khassan because he was otherworldly. He had lived so many lives before this one and he wasn’t even living the one he was currently in. He lived in a house of silence, with only the words on the pages as his voice. I like to think he was the most loyal character in the book as the others were living through violence and missed connections that caused them to make mistakes and have regrets that they might not have had during peace time.
“He hasn’t heard my voice in the one year, eleven months, and three days since he began informing. I’ve counted every day of silence. It’s stupid, I know, but silence is the only authority I have left.” – Anthony Marra
The landscape of Chechnya is so broken that it’s beautiful. Akhmed takes up residency drawing missing family members who have been moved through refugee camps or taken by the various groups against Chechens. He hung the missing neighbors of his village by nail to trees so that they had to be looked at by the informer of the village. There are endless unanswered questions and most of them begin with “why.” The answers are never neat or shining and don’t come in chronological order. In fact, sometimes I got lost for where I was in time and space. What happened before this and what happened after, and I think this fragmented way of telling a story really lends well to the story of war time Chechnya.
“How had civilization survived long enough to accumulate the knowledge contained in these books?” – Anthony Marra, 181
Time is a character in this story. He takes and gives unknowingly. Very much like life for all of us, the characters are never aware how long they will be stuck somewhere, when they may rise from their bed, whether the hospital will be crowded with just those weak in the knees, or those with knees blown through with shrapnel. This makes it harder to read because the reader is lost in time and space, but it also makes it more real. Readers never want to learn everything at once, but you have to read to the very last page in order to fully understand the scope of Marra’s story. Time is also the cause of disappearances and reappearances in this story. Characters are biding for time, selling time to their parents, getting out just in time, hiding in the woods for alone time, left reeling from that one time they dated an oncologist, asked to find laundry at a horrible time. The way the novel is written, going back and forth between moments, is how we look at time in the real world. We’re often living vicariously through our own memories. People live in this cyclical journey where they convince themselves of things today based on things that happened to them years ago, weeks ago, or going to happen for them in the future if they just make the right move two days ago.
“…from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.” – Anthony Marra, 120
“…he had heard these arguments before, had seen grief warp the fabric of memory such that a mother refused to recognize her son when described by the father, and the father, usually compliant to his wife’s requests, truly believed his son’s nose was so crushed he could only breathe through his mouth.” – Anthony Marra, 137
Any reader has to read this book under a microscope lens if they want the full detail that Marra evokes through the beauty of his words and the spirit of his characters. I often had to read sentences many times. There were moments when I had to shuffle through a hundred pages just to remember the last time a character was mentioned because their importance became evident later on in the story. He has created this interconnected universe of people who are not all good and not all bad, but all are burnt and jaded by the offerings of their country and the plumage of their birth places. Many have moved regions, not by choice. They have seen their neighbors’ houses doused in flames with the hearts of families still inside. Some have seen windows blown out. Some their younger sister’s die in the mind, or die in the soul, before their body ever beings crumbling. Akhmed’s wife, Ula, made of beauty and bedsores, spends her time in the breath of sleep, but plays such an important role in the knowing of Akhmed that she takes on the life of a wife without ever summoning the courage to step out of bed. Her gravitational pull begs neighbors to come by and whisper stories to her lack of memory so that they can free themselves from their own burdens. This story is one of regret and things untold, but it’s also a book of freedom.
“Perhaps our deepest love is already inscribed within us, so its object doesn’t create a new word but instead allows us to read the one written. For their entire lives, even before they met, your mother and father held their love for you inside their hearts like an acorn holds an oak tree.” -Anthony Marra, 354
Little Havaa holding the hand of Sonja, dreaming of being a seaanemonist in the portal of the hospital which is sometimes safe, but often not. Where they serve heroin as a pain killer, she waits on a man that never knew the true reason why her father’s fingers sat in a sandwich bag of pooled blood like dead eels in the sea. This beautiful little child which is the true success of the entire story. There is a subconscious connection to Abraham or Ibrahim who almost sacrificed his own son, mentioned in most religions that at one time flooded the Middle East. Havaa is the sacrifice that these characters have made. She’s connected to each one whether through souvenirs, a stuffed scarecrow, a pack of mangy dogs, or the footsteps she leaves in the snow and the way she is a child leaving no stain. She is the power behind this novel. It is to hold her up that these characters survive in the mind of the reader.
“The girl thought of her father’s missing fingers. ’I don’t know.’
‘How do you know what a sea anemone is, anyway? The nearest sea is a few countries over.’
‘My father told me. He’s an arborist. He knows everything about trees. I’m still a minimalist.’
‘Do you know what that is?’
Havaa nodded, expecting the question. ‘It’s a nicer way to say you have nothing.” – Anthony Marra, 45
Khassan’s letter to Havaa at the bitter end will linger with me for some time. A man reaching into the heart of a child to evoke the memories of her lost family is nothing short of brilliant. Imagine if we each had letters from someone who knew our deceased relatives and shared their intimacy with us through words. I think to know what they lived, although it may have pained her childhood is the great hope of this story and the great hope for the world. We must overcome is the novel’s message, even when some of his characters are left bursting into flicker flames, or jaded beyond human recognition. Some people will love again and some will fight battles that we just can’t curse until we’ve traveled to Grozny and watched the windows of our village break into stalagmite charms.
“Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” – Anthony Marra, 184