Okay, now I feel like I’ve read enough of this book to do a proper post about it. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena came to me by way of Powell’s Indiespensible last year. It is the author’s first novel, though he seems to have been around the literary block a few times: MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University. This all sounds like a very big deal to me. What’s interesting to me, like I mentioned in my last post about this book, is that Marra has absolutely zero connection that I’ve been able to find with Chechnya other than traveling in Eastern Europe at one point. He is not a native Chechen, he went to the Landon School, which is apparently some sort of private all-boys high school in Maryland. His bio reeks of privilege. And that’s fine, I’m not mocking his life. But like I said before, it’s weird to me to be reading a first novel with minimal autobiographical content. I mean, perhaps Havaa reminds him of a friend’s daughter, or Khassan is like is father. But Marra grew up nowhere near Chechnya. By rights his first novel should be about what it’s like to go to a fancypants boarding school, not the tragedy of Chechnya in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Granted, I know very well that many, many authors go far afield when they write fiction. That’s just not been my experience of late. Even Kim Harrison is from Cincinnati, albeit a more mundane version than the one she writes about in The Hollows series. I don’t know why Marra’s lack of Chechen-ness bugs me so much. But it does, and I’d like to leave it at that, unless I have an epiphany while I go along.
I introduced the three main characters: Havaa, Sonja, and Akhmed earlier on. I like all three of them; Marra is doing a good job splitting third person omniscient duties among these three characters. I was beginning to think that we were never going to get to see things from Havaa’s point of view, but he got to her eventually. The bulk of the action takes place on five days in 2004 in the village of Eldár, and also Hospital Number 6 in the city of Volchansk. We also get backstories via flashbacks, though the flashbacks haven’t gone further back than about 1994. As I mentioned, Havaa’s father Dokka has been taken by the Feds for reasons unknown. Once the Feds take a person in 2004 Chechnya, they don’t come home. It appears that the Feds also want Havaa, which is why Akhmed, Dokka’s best friend and neighbor, spirits her off to Hospital Number 6 and Sonja. I suspect we’ll find out the story of Dokka’s disappearance in good time, but I don’t know anything yet. I do know how Akhmed learned of Sonja, sort of. A group of rebel soldiers passed through Eldár, and Akhmed, as the town doctor, looked at them all. One of the soldiers had a wound on his chest sewn up with dental floss, and Sonja performed his surgery. Now that’s resourceful. I’m still not clear why Akhmed thought Sonja would be able to help Havaa, other than perhaps because she helped rebel soldiers, and Havaa is also being hunted by the Feds. I expect that’s a story we’ll get more of later, as well.
So far, not a lot has actually happened in the book. I’ve been getting to know the three main characters and their supporting cast. Deshi, Sonja’s nurse at the hospital, so far seems to be there primarily as man-hating comic relief. She has been a nurse at the hospital for years, and her level of bitterness seems appropriate to her station in life. She likes to refer to people in the third person, as in this passage about Sonja: “’Now she thinks I’m a secretary,’ the old nurse said, shaking her head. ‘Soon she’ll start pinching my rump like that oncologist who chased out four secretaries in a year. A shameful profession. I’ve never met an oncologist who wasn’t a hedonist (13).’” Deshi is also very good at her job. She and Sonja run that hospital between the two of them. The other supporting character of interest is Khassan, an old man of Eldár, and Akhmed’s good friend. Since the sixties, he has been working on a book containing the history of Chechnya—the entire history. Like since prehistory history. He cares for the stray and feral dogs of Eldár. And his son, who he lives with, is the village’s informant to the Feds, and as such he has not spoken to his son in over a year. His son brings home food from the military supplier, and Khassan feeds it to the dogs: “He would never forget his son’s face the morning after Ramzan’s fifth trip to the military supplier, when Ramzan opened the refrigerator and found nothing but condiment jars basking in the thirty-watt glow. Ramzan had stormed to the backyard, where the dogs lay on the ground, swollen stomachs pointed skyward, unable to roll, let alone stand, let alone run, and Khassan lay right there among them (84)….”
After spending some time on Wikipedia learning about Chechnya I can see why Khassan’s history was over three thousand pages. It’s all so sad. War and death and more war. And I don’t feel like I know anything about any of it, though that’s quite easily my fault, and not the fault of the western media. I wasn’t exactly up on current events in the late nineties and early 2000’s. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few Americans have minimal knowledge of the Chechen Wars. Perhaps that was Marra’s goal in writing this novel, to bring awareness of this region and its suffering to the world.
Regardless of his reason for writing A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I’m glad Marra did. It’s quite good, more polished than I’d expect for a first novel, but it sounds like he had quite a bit of help in getting it ready for publication. His thank-yous read like a who’s-who of contemporary writers: Adam Johnson, Tobias Wolff, and Justin Torres are the three names I recognize, though I’m pretty sure the others would be known to those more in the know than I am. I’m looking forward to reading the rest Havaa, Sonja, and Akhmed’s story. I hope they each find a measure of happiness, and answers to the questions they have (more on those in my next post). I hope things don’t get worse for them before they get better, too….