Set in Chechnya, this beautiful debut novel shines light on lives that have been ripped asunder by conflict and shows how people can survive even in the bleakest of circumstances
Winner of the BookBrowse 2013 Best Debut Award
Anthony Marra's debut novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set in 2004 in war-torn Chechnya. As the story opens, village physician Akhmed is trying to get his eight-year-old neighbor Havaa to safety after her father has been "disappeared" by Russian soldiers, who have also burned her home to the ground and are actively looking for her. He decides to take the girl to a nearby hospital, where he hopes the only surgeon in attendance, Sonja Rabina, will be able to hide and protect her. As the novel proceeds we learn these characters' backstories as well as those of others with whom their lives intersect, and how all have been traumatically impacted by living in a war zone. Marra weaves a wonderfully complex tale around these characters that abounds with old secrets and unexpected convergences.
As I started writing this review I got online to see what other books Marra had written, and I was surprised to discover that this is his first. The writing is astonishingly good and that it's from the pen of a new novelist makes it that much more extraordinary. His prose is beautifully descriptive and atmospheric, creating detailed scenes that convincingly relay life in a war zone without bogging down the plot:
The forest rose around them, tall skeletal birches, gray coils of bark unraveling from the trunks. They walked on the side of the road, where frozen undergrowth expanded across the gravel. Here, beyond the trails of tank treads, the chances of stepping on a land mine diminished. Still he watched for rises in the frost. He walked a few meters ahead of the girl, just in case.
The author also has an outstanding talent for writing dialog. Each character's voice is distinctive as he or she interacts with the others in the novel. Sometimes the conversations are playful, sometimes regretful, sometimes confessional but they all ring true. The banter between Akhmed, Sonja and her nurse Deshi in particular provide some of the lighter moments in the book.
Marra's forte may very well be his ability to create characters his readers really come to care about. Every one of them, from the lowliest guard up, is drawn in detail but with a minimum of words - at times it feels we have learned all there is to know of a character in just a few sentences. He even leads his readers to understand and sympathize with the book's most unsavory character, something that is extraordinarily difficult to do.
The novel ends on a note of hope and a promise of better things to come for some of those whose stories we have learned, but for the most part it's a pretty tragic book. Not one of the characters has had a pain-free life; horrible things have happened to each of them, and it's heartbreaking reading. There's so much suffering expressed in these pages that to be frank I found it challenging to finish. I was glad that I did see it through it's one of the most memorable and well-written books I've come across in a long time but it was not an easy read.
In short, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena has it all wonderful writing, a moving, believable plot, and three-dimensional characters one comes to love. Marra is a gifted writer, and his debut is enormously impressive.
The Second Chechen War and the Lead-Up to It
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is set primarily during the Second Chechen War, which started August 1999.
The second war had its roots in the First Chechen War (aka the War in Chechnya). At the heart of this initial conflict and indeed the one that followed - was the relationship of Chechnya to Russia.
Chechnya was one of more than a dozen states to declare independence from Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union's dissolution in 1991. But not all Chechens agreed with the decision with many wanting to remain a part of the Russian Federation. The end result was that Chechen President Dzokhar Dudayev's pro-independence government was unstable and this led to armed resistance by rebels opposed to his domestic policies. The situation was exacerbated by the Russian Government under President Boris Yeltsin, which sought to further destabilize Chechnya by supplying the rebels with money, weapons and mercenaries. Non-ethnic Chechens (predominantly ethnic Russians, Armenians & Ukrainians) began to flee the republic, leading to an economic crisis and further chaos. Russia used the turmoil as an excuse to invade Chechnya in December 1994 to "establish constitutional order in Chechnya and to preserve the territorial integrity of Russia."
The ensuing conflict left thousands primarily civilians dead and there were reports of massive numbers of human rights abuses on all sides of the hostilities. The war was also deeply unpopular with the Russian public, which helped bring it to an early end. A ceasefire was signed in August 1996 with a full peace treaty put in place in May of the following year, signed by Yeltsin and the new Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected president in January 1997.
Maskhadov's government was left extremely weak, with very little ability to enforce order in Chechnya. This allowed large, lawless bands of armed men to terrorize the country. Kidnapping high-ranking Russians and other Western citizens became a major source of income for these groups. The lack of a military presence also allowed religious extremism, particularly Islamist Wahhabism, to flourish, and enabled fighters from other countries to infiltrate Chechnya's borders. The situation was so bad that in 1998 a state of emergency was declared by the Chechen government.
In August and September 1999, Chechen, Dagestani, Arab and Wahhabist militants invaded the Republic of Dagestan from Chechnya, sparking the Second Chechen War. Russia again attacked, first with a massive air campaign with the stated goal of wiping out the insurgents but with an end result of displacing thousands of Chechen citizens. On 1 October 1999 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared Maskhadov's government invalid and ordered troops into Chechnya. Adding fuel to the fire were multiple bombings in Russia that were attributed to the separatists (although this assessment has been contested).
As the Russians proceeded into Chechnya once again atrocities were committed against the civilians caught in the middle of the conflict. Chechen nationals were killed in very large numbers, and an estimated 200,000 to 350,000 forced to flee their homes amid Russian bombardment. The Russian army began a siege of Grozny in early February 2000, a city in almost total ruin from the constant shelling. Putin, now President of Russia, established direct rule of Chechnya in May 2000. Meanwhile, the separatists conducted guerrilla warfare against the larger and better-equipped Russians, particularly in the southern regions of Chechnya.
In June 2000 Putin appointed Akhmad Kadyrov the head of Chechnya, and Kadyrov helped form a new Chechen constitution in 2003 granting the republic some autonomy but still maintaining close ties with Russia. Although the new government was very unpopular (Kadyrov was seen as a puppet of the Russian government) Chechnya gradually stabilized as harsh measures were used to quell any civilian dissent and as separatists were killed or escaped to neighboring countries. The war officially ended by decree on 16 April 2009, but sporadic fighting instigated by militants in Dagestan and Ingushetia continues at the time of this writing (April 2013). Incidentally Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in May 2004 and his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, is now President.
PBS has an excellent timeline of Chechnya's recent history which is worth checking out.