Chechnya, Gulags, Stalin, Russia, an ugly history which has been kept secret from everyone but the victims of the purging’s and torture. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Andrew Marra is a beautifully written story of sorrow, hope, memory, loss and survival. The character development is excellent and so remarkable that the people cannot easily be forgotten once you put the book down. The story takes place over 5 days in a small village, Eldar, Chechnya. It begins when military men drag a man away in the middle of the night. A neighbor, Akmed, rescues the 8 year old daughter of this best friend, and commits himself to hiding her to save her from disappearing. He finds shelter for her in a nearby hospital, staffed by a woman doctor and a nurse, but it comes with a price – he must work at the hospital in order for the young girl to stay.
Sonja, the doctor, is an ethnic Russian whose grandparents moved to Volchansk as part of the Stalinist colonization of the region. She is so skilled and resourceful she can successfully stitch a gaping chest wound with dental floss. Akhmed, an ethnic Chechen, is a drastically under qualified doctor with a talent for drawing, who has taken to painting portraits of the dead and the vanished and hanging them around the neighborhood — one of a number of semi-surreal acts of remembrance the novel has to offer. The lives of everyone in this story are tormented by loss. This novel is , among other things, a meditation on the use and abuse of history, and an inquiry into the extent to which acts of memory may also constitute acts of survival. ( NY Times Review, Bell, June 7, 2013)
The title of this book comes from a medical textbook’s definition of life. While reminding us of the worst of the war-torn world we live in, Marra finds sustainable hope in the survival of a very few, and in the regenerative possibility of life in its essential form, defined by a medical textbook passage that Sonja and Natasha (her sister) read at different times. In her darkest moments, Sonja sees her life as “an uneven orbit around a dark star, a moth circling a dead bulb,” but against that image is the textbook definition: “a constellation of vital phenomena — organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”( NY Times Book Review, Madison Smartt Bell, June 7, 2013)
“Captured so intensely is the most dreadful disappearance of all: destruction of the self under torture. This novel plentifully displays the very worst of human capability. In the interrogation pits somewhere between Volchansk and Eldar, fingers and testicles chopped off with bolt cutters are only the beginning.” (Bell,7/13) Marra makes it possible to sympathize with some of his difficult characters in spite of their flaws; this is a sign of a truly amazing writer!
I now understand the rage in Chechyna after reading their history of treatment by the Russians. The cycle of revenge between Russia and Chechyna is endless, as it is with other world conflicts. How people survive is one of the many things that I think about after reading this novel. How people live with themselves after they do certain acts to survive is another point of the book. Please read it- it will receive awards and deserves it. I am haunted…
Tracys 2 cents.
Ps- I have cited Madison Smartt Bell, Prisoners of the Caucasus which is the review of A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena, NY Times Review, June 2013, several times in this summery. The review is spot on- just follow the link and forgive me for referencing this so often instead of using my own words.