Friday, August 7, 2015

Anthony Marra's Phenomenal Novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A few weeks ago I received a review assignment from my editor at Library Journal. I was surprised at first, thinking that it didn't fit my usual profile (I seldom review short stories). But as it happens "The Tsar of Love and Techno," by literary wunderkind Anthony Marra, is a marvel and readers are in for a real treat when it comes out in October.

Feeling that I should be thorough, I decided that I'd better read Marra's debut novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," that took the literati by storm back in 2013. So glad that I did!

Both novels examine the ways in which people and places are affected by war, in this case a war that I knew little or nothing about. When the USSR imploded back in the '80's the ripple effect was long and profound. In Chechnya there was a division between those who embraced independence and those who felt that they were Russian to the core. In the same way that issues and sides in the Middle East conflict are muddled, so the Chechens broke into rebel groups pitting parent against child, brother against brother, and neighbor against neighbor.
The book opens with the lonely figure of eight-year-old Havaa hiding in the forest with her little blue suitcase, an item her dad always had her keep handy in case the family was evicted or arrested. Her father has been "disappeared," her home is burning to the ground, and her mother is already dead.
Akhmed has been fearfully watching the scene unfold from his nearby home, cautious lest he be next to catch the attention of the Russian marauders. Still, he cannot in good conscience leave Havaa to her own devices so he makes a momentous decision. He will take her to a place of sanctuary, an abandoned hospital in the nearby town where a renowned female surgeon and a couple of die-hard nurses continue to treat war casualties.
And here, in this place of death and desperation, the surgeon, Sonja, Havaa, and Akhmed, form a coalition of the unwilling, tolerating each other at first, then beginning to trust, and finally to discover some sense of humanity in a world gone mad. Over the course of a week, back stories reveal a tenuous connection that binds the three in surprising ways.
Anthony Marra has been lauded with multiple awards for this sophisticated novel, evoking wonder at how one so young could write as if he held the wisdom of the ages in his pen. If I had to use an adjective to describe him it might be humane. He manages to find goodness in evil places. Where torture is the norm, men stand up to be counted rather than flinch from death. Where love seems impossible, it manifests itself in small, selfless actions of profound beauty and generosity.
Reading a novel like this reminds me yet again how ridiculously fortunate we here in the United States have been for the past couple of hundred years. While the news media totals up statistics of the dead and displaced in all of the war-torn areas of the world, we live in relative comfort, watch our TVs, and satisfy ourselves that these atrocities are happening elsewhere in the world.
When refugees come to our shores we expect them to buck up, assimilate, get jobs, and pursue the American dream without taking even a moment to comprehend the horrors they've seen. Thank you Mr. Marra for using fiction to illustrate the truth, that while survivors of war may appear to be whole, they are indelibly and profoundly altered by their experiences. May we find the compassion for them that you have shown for your characters.

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