Few writers have enjoyed such an auspicious debut as 28-year-old Anthony Marra, whose first novel is being published this week in an edition of 60,000 copies amid a blaze of publicity and a flood of fulsome blurbs. But the one event that is bound to bring his book the most notice was emphatically not part of that grand plan to launch what his publishers clearly foresee as a major literary career.
With the entire world now wondering what drove the two Tsarnaev brothers to allegedly spread terror in Boston, Marra’s novel quite unintentionally may help to explain it. Titled A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it is a horrifying account of the violence and oppression that beset the Caucasian republic of Chechnya during its recent wars with Russia, offering an inside look at the little-known region combined with a deeply human understanding of its suffering that no geopolitical or counterterrorism pundit could hope to match.
Read in light of the Boston bombings, Marra’s first novel becomes eerily prophetic, but he bridles at the suggestion of any connection between the horrors depicted so vividly in his fiction and the devastation in Boston. For him, the bombing was doubly shocking.
“I’m not sure I can really speak to that,” he says hesitantly. “I’m an American novelist and not really any kind of expert.”
But Marra, a graduate of the two most prestigious creative-writing programs in the United States, will speak up on behalf of the many ordinary people he met while travelling in Chechnya to research his novel. “All of them are staunchly against terrorism, both because they have keenly suffered its effects and because they are well aware how acts of this nature committed by a couple of terrorists can easily shame their entire people.”
What Marra does in his novel – its title taken from the definition of “life” in a Russian medical dictionary – is basically the opposite, excavating a few thin, warm slivers of humanity out of the wreckage of Chechnya, despite the unremitting horrors his characters experience and, for the most part, do not survive.
Nothing of the sort was on the young English major’s mind when he visited St. Petersburg six years ago to complete his undergraduate degree with a headfirst immersion in the Russian literature he had grown to love as a student.
What first turned his head was the sight of the Red Army veterans of the ongoing Chechen war, often homeless and missing limbs, begging for change at his local subway stop. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her fearless exposés of Russian atrocities in Chechnya, had just been shot dead in the elevator to her own apartment, her legacy surviving in such works as A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, which became an important source for Marra’s Constellation.
Marra became fascinated with the region and was not surprised that his own literary heroes had mined it before him – Tolstoy and Pushkin in two separate works, both titled The Prisoner of the Caucasus, and the former in his last novel, Hadji Murád.
“It has this incredibly strange and complex history and culture that I really hadn’t been aware of before,” Marra says.
But for all the non-fiction he read, he searched in vain for a novel in English about the recent Chechen wars. “What I had read – and then later heard for myself while travelling through Chechnya – were the kind of stories about ordinary people resisting in extraordinary circumstances that seemed to demand to be brought to life through fiction,” he says. “So I came at my book more as a reader than as a writer. This was a book that I wanted to find on the bookshelf, but it wasn’t there yet.”
But Marra’s novel is no mere chronicle. It is an ambitious work of art that visits hell in an audacious quest for redemption. He finds it among “ordinary people who are willing to sacrifice themselves and commit acts of courage that they ordinarily wouldn’t want to do,” he says. “Ultimately it is a story of people persisting in retaining their humanity despite some terrific obstacles.”