What do you really know about Chechnya? If you’re like me, it’s not much. But because of the ethnicity of the alleged bombers at the Boston Marathon in 2013, my curiosity was piqued. When a local book club picked A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for their selection, I decided to join them. The author says the title is the definition of “life” in a Russian medical dictionary. It does seem to depict a soulless attitude.
The story takes place in Chechnya, 1994 to 2004. War-ravaged for generations, many people have fled the country, but some have managed to hold on. Winter is bitterly cold and terribly long. To learn more about Chechnya’s recent history, go to here.
The story opens with eight-year-old Havaa escaping into the woods with a suitcase as she watches a soldier march her father away in the middle of the night. She had packed the suitcase, it turns out, long before this, anticipating just such an event.
Her neighbor, Akhmed, finds her and together they walk miles to a hospital. Most of the facility is closed up, supplies are scarce, and only one doctor, a Russian, Sonja, remains. She definitely does not want the responsibility of a child.
How the supplies for the hospital are smuggled in, the gradual softening of Sonja, the sad experiences of her trafficked sister Natasha, and the torture of prisoners in a rock quarry give us the flavor of the two cultures. How men will betray innocent neighbors for a price or to settle a grudge may give us pause about some of the men we are holding at Guantanamo.
The story skips back and forth through the years, gradually crafting a powerful mosaic of a people who have never known peace, many still managing to function and even thrive, some giving up, lying listless in bed or committing suicide. Not a pleasant bedtime story, but because of the skill of this writer, it fascinates and informs at the same time.
At the beginning of each chapter, the author gives us literally a timeline so we don’t get completely lost. Even so, I wish I’d made a brief bio of characters as I read the book because at times, I struggled to figure out just who a certain man or woman was.
Why read it?
I was glad I read it. It’s beautifully written, and often I stopped to savor a phrase, or an unusual metaphor. Certainly I now have a better understanding of who the Chechens are, the cruelty of their Russian conquerors, and how the Chechens can be violent enough to do unspeakable things. As I read the book, I couldn’t help thinking about how, a few years back, how the Chechens held Russian children hostage for days without food or water. I believe they may have seen so much cruelty over the years that they’d lost their capacity for compassion. Altogether this is a haunting, enlightening book.
Anthony Marra, Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner, MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, gives us a clear picture of a country unknown to most of us, with characters strongly delineated.
If you enjoyed “The Kite Runner,” this book is probably for you.