A recent New York Times profile of Anthony Marra, the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, notes that “until the Boston Marathon bombings most Americans paid little attention to Chechnya.”1 Though Marra, whose novel is set against the backdrop of the Chechen Wars, is clearly an exception to this generalization, variations on the same sentence—with Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, or Bosnia all too easily substituted for Chechnya—are a commonplace. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a delicately beautiful book about the precarity of life amid the recurring horrors of the wars that killed some 75,000 to 150,000 civilians in the closing years of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. It also mirrors, perhaps unwittingly, the logic that works to make this commonplace acceptable.
The book follows the tangled lives of a number of villagers over the course of five days in December 2004. But Marra juxtaposes different temporal frameworks, tracing the intersecting stories of the villagers forward and backward over a 10-year timeline from 1994 to 2004, thus encompassing the wars of both 1994–96 and 1999–2000 while peculiarly avoiding the horrific Beslan school siege that ended in the deaths of some two hundred children and more than two hundred adults. Marra also largely avoids religion, one of the major fault lines of the region along with ethnic and tribal identities. Most of his Muslim characters seem to be Muslim in name only, not least a comically radicalized Saudi Wahhabi with a weakness for online poker.
A surgeon’s bloody labors at the damaging intersection of hard bullets and soft tissues, of powerful explosions and feeble bones, require that she inflict one injury to remedy another.
The five days covered by A Constellation of Vital Phenomena commence with the Russian forces (“the Feds”) seizing the Muslim villager Dokka and burning his house to the ground. They leave behind his young daughter, Havaa, who is spirited away to a nearby hospital by a neighbor named Akhmed. The Chechen-born but ethnically Russian Sonja is the sole doctor at the hospital, which has been damaged by both sides in the conflict. Her relationships with Akhmed, Havaa, and her sister, Natasha, place Sonja and her hospital at the center of the “constellation” of births, deaths, love affairs, amputations, and other medical procedures that dominate the lives of the local villagers, the warring forces, and everyone caught in between.
The medical operations Sonja performs become metaphors for the ambiguities of morality amid war and peace: a surgeon’s bloody labors at the damaging intersection of hard bullets and soft tissues, of powerful explosions and feeble bones, require that she inflict one injury to remedy another. The doctor addresses the truth of the damaged body, but does not analyze why or how it came to be damaged.
Marra writes for an audience conditioned by television shows such as ER and accustomed to the ubiquity of digital cameras ready to capture intimacy and atrocity for YouTube or LiveLeak. He depicts medical procedures with graphic detail and enthusiasm. In one scene, Akhmed, volunteering at the hospital, aids Sonja in amputating the leg of a man wounded by a land mine.2 Sonja, who has performed hundreds or thousands of amputations, can no longer see the nature of her work. The difficulty of sawing through bones has left “calluses” on Sonja’s palm and, by extension, her soul. Mutilation, as well as amputation, proliferates throughout Marra’s book. Along with bodies shredded by landmines, there are bodies subjected to torture by the Russians. One character has lost all 10 fingers to the systematic use of bolt cutters after a bribe fell short of demands. Another character has lost his testicles to the same implement.3
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena underscores not only the shared features of surgery and torture, but those of medicine and poison. After the war cuts off her other medical supplies, Sonja uses heroin obtained from smugglers as a pain killer. In one scene, her sister, Natasha, administers heroin to a patient and then to herself, eventually becoming an addict. Through the war years, Natasha also endures physically abusive lovers and severe psychological trauma, and, after trying to escape the dangers and deprivations of her hometown, becomes a victim of human trafficking as part of the cross-European sex trade.
It is a graceful conceptual exchange, though one at odds with the realism of the book.
Here Marra is participating in a larger post-9/11 phenomenon: the narration and normalization of the more extreme margins of sex and violence. Think of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, or the best-selling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which uses the appalling violence inflicted upon Lisbeth Salander to mitigate the appalling violence—rape and torture—she in turn inflicts upon her rapist. The mid-2000s saw the rise of “torture porn” as a mainstream film genre, exemplified by the Saw and Hostel franchises. Electric shock and echoes of the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib are one thing, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena offers a scene where a Russian interrogator (the one “with the less shiny shoes”) uses an eel to rape a Muslim imam. This is a testament to Marra’s imagination, but it exposes the book’s broader flaws. Unlike Roberto Bolaño, whose 2666 devotes almost three hundred pages to describing the bodies of dead women who have been raped, strangled, beaten, and dumped on the highway or in the desert, Marra seems to lack an appalled self-awareness of the disturbing implications of repeatedly narrated acts of horror.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is an elegant book, with beautifully written characters navigating a broken world. For all of its concern with how suffering does and does not shape individuals, however, it tends to aestheticize that suffering. For example, Ramzan’s father, Khassan, refuses to eat the food his son has earned by acting as an informer. Instead, he feeds it to a pack of feral dogs that once belonged to neighbors who have been “disappeared” as a result of Ramzan’s activities. “If Ramzan used food to justify the disappearances, Khassan made sure it all went to the dogs,” Marra writes. It is a graceful conceptual exchange, though one at odds with the realism of the book. It is difficult to imagine an ethical stance that, in the face of true privation, would place feeding feral dogs over feeding one’s neighbors.
Depicting torture as something done by other people in other countries can be an indirect way of examining our own responsibilities in the wake of the evidence of American torture of prisoners that came to the public’s attention a decade ago. But Marra’s descriptions of extreme violence sometimes seem to normalize the abnormal through representation, and the book’s exploration of the ambiguities of torture in wartime Chechnya threatens to obscure the unambiguous importance of turning the camera back around on ourselves.
- Charles McGrath, “Seeing Chechnya’s Wonders, Long Before Getting There,” New York Times, May 29, 2013. ↩
- On the ongoing contamination of Chechnya by landmines and unexploded ordinance, see the 2007 Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor Report, released by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. After 2007, data for Chechnya were incorporated into the organization’s report on Russia. ↩
- On torture during and after the two Chechen wars, see the report by Human Rights Watch presented to the UN Committee Against Torture in November 2006, “Widespread Torture in the Chechen Republic.” ↩