Chechnya has apparently spent most of its existence in a state of war, occupation, or extreme instability. It's not something that many Americans know a lot of about, myself among them. I knew the term "Chechen rebels" would pop up in newscasts once in a while but I didn't really know what that meant in the grand scheme of things. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
illuminates the lives of several people in a small Chechen village during the Second Chechen War: Havaa, a young girl whose father has been taken by the Russians; Akhmed, a failed doctor who would have rather been a painter and must now find a way to keep the girl safe; Sonja, the surgeon who runs the region's hospital with a coldness harvested from her own loss; Ramzan, the gun-runner turned informant whose own father refuses to speak to him; Natasha, the heroine addict who spends most of her life just trying to get out. These characters are richly drawn, their lives threaded together by coincidence, blood, and obligation.
If I am to be completely honest, this was a hard book for me to read. The difficulty came from two sources: the gruesomeness of the subject matter and the concentric circularity of the narrative. There are graphic descriptions of torture, medical procedures, and a young child making a scarecrow out of the decapitated head of one of her peers. If you are even the slightest bit queasy, you are going to have a lot of trouble with this book. I occasionally had to put it down and focus on something else because of the brutality.
Marra's story moves around, spanning the decade between 1994 and 2004. I can't even say it bounces back and forth; it's more like he slides around. He slowly reveals the connections between the myriad characters, and my unfamiliarity with Chechen history -- and, honestly, the names -- sometimes made it hard for me to keep everything straight.
Ultimately, though, the story contained within these pages was worth the effort. There's many layers of meaning and ideas -- justifying the murder of children, the persistence of hope in a hopeless land, what it means to be alive. Even the ugliest parts are written so beautifully, it's hard to believe that this is a debut novel:
"I've always thought Marx's view on religion was the one thing he got right. Faith is a crutch."
"If you step on a land mine," Akhmed said, "the crutch becomes the leg."
Take your time with this one. It'll give you a lot to think about and it'll break your heart, but you will be unable to stop reading.