Book Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” 

That’s how life is defined in the medical dictionary owned by Sonja, one of the protagonists. Not only is this an apt description of life broken down to its elements, it’s an apt description for the book itself.

This has been one of the most moving books I have read in recent times – its significance increased by the times we are living in and also a necessary reminder to those of us comfortable in our relatively stable countries and in the safety of our homes. It takes a book like this to disconcert us and stop us from a putting a blinder to what’s happening in the ‘real world’. After all, the conflict in Chechnya, which this book talks about, didn’t happen that long ago.

This is the story of ordinary people through the first and the second Chechen wars. Instead of focusing on the war at a macro level, its focal point is instead the people – Havaa, the eight year old, whose father disappears one night, taken by the Russian Feds; Akhmed and his attempt to protect Havaa at all costs; Sonja, the genius surgeon, the last one left in what seems like the ‘the end of the world’ hospital who is in search for her lost sister, Natasha; Khassan, the seventy-nine year old former Professor and his inner conflict about his son, Ramzan, who is an informant for the Russians.

It’s human tendency, perhaps, to rationalize the suffering of those in other parts of the world, which seem so remote and removed from our everyday lives – it’s an escape mechanism. Yet, by depicting the humanity beneath the ‘headlines’ Anthony Marra makes us realize that, after all, these are people with the same desires, aspirations, the need to belong and to be safe, yet are denied these things.

Though we are taken through the lives of each of the 5 characters, each one is so fleshed out, it’s almost as if you know them. Each one of them try to make a semblance of a life in the midst of something that seems so unimaginable. By taking us through multiple timelines, the author makes us understand the characters’ motivations, so we can see the complexities that make them gray rather than purely good or evil. After all, when all structures and routines have broken down, all normalcy gone, human beings cannot be expected to behave according to the black and white rules of morality.

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(A Russian soldier playing an abandoned piano in Chechnya in 1994 – Image credits: drugoi.livejournal.com)

On the one hand, the author covers the violence and torments of the civilians in the midst of war – sometimes these are graphic in their details, making you wince – and on the other hand, he covers the ordinary, everyday details . For instance – everyday humour, friendships, passions.

“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.”

Through the characters, we see what war does to relationships and to the feeling of community – the distrust, the paranoia, and the struggle to survive evoking the worst in human beings. At the same time, we see how chaotic times also evoke the best in human beings. Love and loyalty to one’s family despite the worst, as well as humaneness as being the only constant in the middle of chaos. It’s about inter-connectedness between people, formerly strangers, that makes life worth living.

It also talks about memory and nostalgia. Memory, like love, being the other constant and the one possession that’s left in such circumstances.

Perhaps my only complaint is that, at times, the prose felt forced – as if the author was trying so hard to make it sound beautiful that it seemed convoluted. However, overall, this was a deeply satisfying reading experience, in that it does what books are meant to – expand your worldview and perspective to include the experience of others.

Rating: 4/5

(By Misha)

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