“How had civilization survived long enough to accumulate the knowledge contained in these books?” asks a character in Anthony Marra’s quieting debut novel, as she stands before her sister’s library with the ugly upheavals of war waging around and inside of her.
The question persists throughout A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, albeit in different forms. How can a civilization, a person, survive so much and even remember to write it down? Another character spends his whole life recording a history of a land that barely seems to exist after becoming the theatre for back-to-back post-Soviet wars. Curious about how the book is going, someone asks him: “It’s not writing itself?” The man winces and says, “History writes itself. It doesn’t need my assistance.” A woman, pulled by fate and sisterly love, returns from the safety and promise of her burgeoning medical career in London to a newly ravaged Chechnya and wonders what she’s doing at the bottom of a crater. How does humanity persist in the face of the horrors it brings upon itself?
Set for the most part over five days in 2004, at the height of the second Chechen war (in which the nation was ultimately, violently reclaimed as a Republic of Russia), A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is suffused with plenty of personal and political eruptions. Marra delicately intermingles these spheres and loads them up with details – the novel spills forward and backward through time like the surface tension finally breaking on the convex pool at the top of an over-filled water glass.
A woman who exists in just a single, transient scene is sentenced to a life much longer than the book, the omniscient narrator following her from a moment in the sight lines of a main character waiting for a train well into the next year, where she will taste a lime for the first time; the clauses pile around her until she’s no longer in view and both prose and plot are forced to flow in another direction.
The effect is striking in the way it both calmed and disturbed this reader: despite the senseless present, a future will unfold and eventually cohere, and yet the very fact of this future makes the present-tense horrors of loss and dispossession all the more starkly articulated. So Marra is investigating both the forest and the trees, and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena develops into a fractal portrait that builds from the limited lives of individuals a larger picture of the flawed but infinite beauty of the human spirit.
In December of 2004, federalists abduct a man in the middle of the night. As they pull up to the house, he sends his daughter out the back door and into the forest. She is found the next day by their neighbour, the village’s backwater doctor. He takes her to the nearest hospital, in the hopes that he can bank on the pity of a renowned and overextended surgeon.
Their week-long adventure is interpolated by vignettes of trauma and love, spreading like a dark cloud from the village across Europe. Marra shuffles his reader through a decade of tumult and torture. Men are held for days in underground pits before being brought up to the light and losing their body parts to the federalists’s knives. Women are trafficked into sex slavery, given heroin to make them, and their addictions, dependent on their captors. These scenes are written out in prose that refuses to titillate – they describe absolute horror without cheapening this history with blood-soaked schlock or gore.
Thankfully, Marra’s use of language also avoids becoming overbearingly lovely. Though in parts the book reminded me of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, Marra doesn’t couch this story in elaborate philosophical arguments, nor does he rely on densely ornamented prose to function as an aesthetic analgesic to treat a reader’s second-hand pain.
Instead, the story unfolds in language that shifts to suit the context of each moment, and Marra evinces outstanding control and good judgment in the way he moves from comic to slightly surreal to no-punches-pulled lush lyricism. The many characters and events require an incredibly nuanced palette, and Marra obliges his material with a deft hand.
A villager who has spied and informed on his neighbours, choosing his own deeply marred life above theirs, tells us: “Inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.” The complicated coward may speak the line, but the entire book is a serious celebration of the fact: The simplest life cannot precisely be put down in details or marks on a a page – the spirit fundamentally escapes language, if only because we can’t pronounce the words. Nonetheless, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena proves that if anything, it’s better, more beautiful and necessary to keep trying.
Emily M. Keeler is the editor of Little Brother magazine.