It’s terrifying to place yourself in the shoes of the protagonist at the start of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. One night Akhmed looks out his window to see his neighbour Dokka being dragged from his house by officials. The house is burned as the man is taken away to some unknown fate and his 8 year-old daughter is nowhere to be seen. This is in the middle of war-torn Chechnya in 2004. Anthony Marra continues to describe the events which led to Dokka’s disappearance and the lives of a small group of characters whose communities have been ravaged by battles and deceit. The subject matter is very heavy, but completely absorbing. Marra’s writing is beautifully composed and the characters feel so immediately real I felt a strong desire to know what happens to them.
Marra heads each chapter with a timeline scale spanning a decade and demarcates the year being dealt with by highlighting it. In this way he slides back and forth in time between chapters showing the way the past influences the present. However, within each year he frequently provides flashes forward for different characters explaining how they flourish or perish in the many years which follow because of what’s occurring at the present time. This produces a curious effect where the repercussions of actions resonate throughout the present causing a swirling interconnected range of consequences. One elderly character named Khassan has spent his life writing a history of Chechnya which numbers thousands of pages. He can never complete it because of the constantly changing political landscape of the country. Marra cleverly offers an alternative understanding of the country based on these individual characters whose lives effect each other in ways unexpectedly and shape the future.
A country that is under siege operates in ways terrifyingly different from the everyday life of developed politically-stable countries where there is a presumption of justice and order. Marra intelligently explores how this affects the psychology of the people. At one point it's observed that “War is unnatural... it causes people to act unnaturally.” It's a state of life that is ruled by fear and suspicion. Friends inform on friends. People disappear. Sometimes they return with fingers or other body parts missing. Or they don't return at all. Rules for civilization are twisted as order breaks down. People who act egregiously can console themselves with the knowledge that “a land without law is a land without crime.” Here people are only guided by their own sense of morality – something which is tragically rendered pointless under the grinding fate of chance and circumstance. When it come to survival the values that people consider an essential part of their humanity can disappear. As the character Ramzan observes: “We wear clothes, and speak, and create civilizations, and believe we are more than wolves. But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”
Amidst the devastation of war life comes to mean very little. A brilliant Russian doctor named Sonja works faithfully in a nearly-deserted hospital seeing to the hundreds of people who need limbs amputated after stumbling upon land-mines. For someone who must deal with pain and loss on such a large scale a part of her must remain stoic when faced with so many deaths. Akhmed is at first alarmed by this: “In her indifference he saw the truth of a world he didn't want to believe in, one in which a human being could be discarded as easily as pocket lint.” In these circumstances entire communities of people are swept into larger historical events. Individual lives are grouped into impersonal figures reported as casualties as it is easier to dismiss them and avoid facing the true horror of many personal losses.
What Marra does beautifully in this novel is elevate individual lives giving them a nobility and honouring them in a way that the statistics of war leave out. In a way similar to how the character of Akhmed memorialises the “disappeared” of his village by drawing portraits of those who have been taken and posting them around the streets and forest, Marra presents dynamic descriptions of striking individuals who would otherwise be ignored and forgotten. The author also shows the connections which join people together even in the most desolate circumstances. There is a distillation of feeling so that people understand what is really necessary. “Love, she learned, could reduce its recipient to an essential thing, as important as food or shelter, whose presence is not only longed for but needed.” There is a tenderness found between some of the characters in this novel more believable and hard-won than in many other books I've read.
Marra also meditates on the philosophical meaning of love. There is often an assumption that the person we love is someone we discover. However, he counters that “Perhaps our deepest love is already inscribed within us, so its object doesn't create a new word but instead allows us to read the one written.” I've meditated a while on this statement and I think it has multiple meanings. You could take it as having a romantic notion that the person you love was always a part of you. Or it's possible to interpret it as meaning that love reveals something about one's own essential self that the self doesn't understand without this connection. In any case, it's a fascinating way to think about the interplay between love as a projection of feeling and an emotion that leads to personal revelation.
As well as showing the deeply-felt personal stories of the individuals Marra also hints at the mercilessness of life in the grander scale of things. In one chilling statement he surmises “There is something miraculous in the way the years wash away your evidence, first you, then your friends and family, then the descendants who remember your face, until you aren't even a memory, you're only carbon, no greater than your atoms, and time will divide them as well.” No matter how much anyone strives to leave their mark on the world through accomplishments or progeny we'll all eventually be reduced down to the essential elements which are recycled and distributed again throughout the universe. It's only when considering the agonizing pain people are capable of causing each other as cited in this novel that such a cold hard truth can be considered consoling rather than horrifying.