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Reviews

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Rebecca Foster

Anthony Marra

Hogarth
405pp

 

Debut novelist Anthony Marra earned universal acclaim for this complex reflection on the Chechen wars, longlisted for the USA's 2013 National Book Award. Marra matches America's best contemporary novelists with his defence of the human spirit in the face of wartime atrocities that threaten to reduce people - literally and metaphorically - to their constituent body parts.

The story begins in December 2004, with Chechnya experiencing the insurgency phase of its Second War. 'On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.' That opening sentence at once fixes the fine balance between horror and whimsy. Eight-year-old Havaa's childish innocence is an essential counterpoint to the novel's tragedies. With her father missing and presumed dead - one of the country's many 'disappeared' - the family's neighbour, Akhmed, takes Havaa to the woefully understaffed Hospital No. 6 to be looked after by surgeon Sonja. Over the next five days, Havaa, Sonja and Akhmed will learn of their surprising connections and of past intersections that will change their future.

The narrative leaps around the decade between 1994 and 2004. Through flashbacks, readers learn about Sonja's medical training in London, her missing sister Natasha's terrifying journey through enforced prostitution and drug addiction, and the acts of torture regularly committed at 'the Landfill'. In another plot strand, Akhmed's friend Khassan is writing a six-volume history of Chechnya; his magnum opus stretches to over 3,000 pages, but the region's history is constantly changing and his revisions are never complete. Khassan's son Ramzan is a government collaborator who informs on his own neighbours, leading Khassan to wonder whether, like Abraham, he would be furthering God's cause by sacrificing his own son.

The religion on display is a nominal Islam, but characters seem animated by a more mystical, existential faith; when asked why he prays at noon, Akhmed replies, 'That's like asking if I believe in gravity . . . It doesn't require belief.' His mentally ill wife, Ula, has lapsed into a primitive animism: 'I must have lived a thousand lives before this. I was a bird, I was an insect. I lived in the leaves. I don't know which life is the hallucination.' Yet Ula's sense of reincarnation is no less valid than other forms of belief in the novel; after all, 'Angels descended. Prophets spoke. Truth was only one among many hallucinations.'

Even in the face of unimaginable tragedy, the characters have a clear vision of goodness persisting, for 'evil ... like a shadow, cannot exist independently of the good it silhouettes.' Still, religion can be used to excuse brutality; especially when Arab Wahhabis come radicalising recruits in 2001, the vocabulary of jihad and infidels comes into play. Surveying the suffering around him, Khassan concludes, 'These are the end times. There can be nothing after this', but the novel struggles against that extreme of apocalyptic nihilism, insisting that while there is life there is hope. When the Feds come for Akhmed, too, he finds that although the rituals of Islam seem hollow, belief is still essential - even as an emptiness: 'The pearl of faith had dissolved, and at its centre was a sand grain of doubt, and he held onto it, knowing that doubt, like longing, could sustain him.' Both Havaa and Sonja must rest in uncertainty, moving on with their lives even though they never learn (though readers do) what happened to their loved ones.

Marra's characters constantly find God in unexpected places: in doubt, in torture (Ramzan thinks, 'It was God he found at the other end of the electrical wires') and in infirmity. In a novel set largely in a hospital, medicine inevitably takes on religion's role: repairing lives, lending hope and providing a source of wonder. Indeed, 'Medical miracles are the only miracles most of us will ever see,' Akhmed remarks, as awe-struck patients view Sonja as 'the last prophet of life, whom they pleaded with and praised'.

The novel is both fascinated and horrified by the reality of physical existence. Dry, anatomical detail shares space with scenes of bloody torture. Characters endure castration or amputation surgery after landmine accidents. Although it is tempting to succumb to the 'humiliation of knowing that you are not a human being but a bundle of screaming nerves . . . defined by the ten thousand ways a human can hurt,' Marra consistently defies an attitude of materialist reductionism. At the same time, he celebrates the body as a wondrous collection of 'organs, these marvellous things we ignore, forget and take for granted . . . how remarkable it is, this human matter,' Sonja exclaims. To Ramzan's jaded question, 'What did any one person matter when pounded against the anvil of history?', Marra counters that every life is an uncontainable riddle: as she watches Havaa sleep, Sonja thinks that 'between the creation of this body and its end lay the mystery the girl would spend her life solving.'

Marra repeatedly references Leo Tolstoy's Hadji Murád (also set during a conflict in Muslim Chechnya), and his novel is a similarly contained epic in the Russian tradition. As a confident debut novel about researching family secrets in Eastern Europe, it also joins two other triumphs, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated and Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife. There may be superfluous flashbacks, and one might wish for more of Havaa's presence to brighten a sombre wartime tale, but this is nonetheless an unforgettable story of coping with loss and uncertainty.

Ultimately, life is not just the title's 'constellation of vital phenomena - organisation, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation'. Despite gory evidence to the contrary, there is much more to existence than bodily survival; we all share in both physical vulnerability and innate dignity. Perhaps, as Philip Larkin declared, 'What will survive of us is love.'