A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra ended up becoming one of my favorite books of 2014. Set in war torn Chechnya, the settings alternate between Eldar, a small village, and a mostly abandoned hospital in nearby Volchansk. The narrative structure reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See, which played with time and the order in which the story was presented to the reader. In this story, there is a timeline at the beginning of each chapter that goes from 1994-2004, with the chapter’s focus highlighted. Marra covers the interconnected story of about characters, focusing mainly on Havaa, a young girl whose mother had died and whose father was disappeared at the beginning of the story, the neighbor who takes her in, and Sonja, the only doctor at the hospital who returned to Chechnya from London to be with her sister, who has also disappeared.
In an interview at the end of the book Marra describes his style: “War breaks cities, buildings, and families, but also time and the way stories are constructed. To tell this story in a straightforward, linear fashion would fall short of capturing the absurd, recursive manner in which its characters assemble their chaotic narrative. All the characters in Constellation are trying to piece back together their fragmented lives, and I wanted to embody that in the novel’s structure. As each character attempts to rescue what has been lost, the novel mends their individual stories into a communal whole,” 394). Marra beautifully captures the struggle and desperation of each of the characters–enabling us to feel the chaos, confusion, and heartbreak alongside of them.
When describing her missing sister to border guards, camp officials, and aid workers: How could an instrument as blunted as language express one as strange and fleeting as Natasha? Metaphors failed her; Natasha could not be summarized, (271). It was this sentence that helped me wrap my mind around what Marra was doing with the structure of the story–language cannot fully express a nation at war, let alone an individual. The shifting in time, backward and forward through the memories of six or so individuals can provide only a glimpse of the confusion, the loss, the human weight of what happens when we begin to destroy each other and then try to find the kernel of humanity left there.
The title felt a bit pretentious to me until I found the reference: While reading The Medical Dictionary of the Union of Soviet Physicians, she stumbled across this: Life: a constellation of vital phenomena–organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation (184).
These words, especially constellation, seem to perfectly describe life’s processes–and when considered out of a medical dictionary, have enormous metaphorical weight. Each individual character in the story was actively involved in each phenomena–each has that individual constellation of connectedness between irritability and growth, adaptation and organization, and so on. When the individual stories are layered, all of a sudden the night sky, and the human story, becomes infinitely more complex. I’m fascinated by the way individual stories lend themselves to larger historical narratives and I think it is absolutely necessary for us to understand both. I mentioned this concept a few weeks ago when I was thinking about why reading narrative (fiction or nonfiction) is important: we get to hear voices and understand places that are so far outside our own experiences, and by doing so we become more aware, more empathetic, and (thankfully in my opinion) more understanding of the fact that life is deeply more complex than the two-sided camps that much of American media portrays. This is vital if we are to make real progress as humans.
To end, I wanted to share this excerpt from Sonja (who copes by quantifying and distancing), as she looks at Havaa upon her arrival.
Those smooth, spit-cleaned cheeks gave no indication of the dreams crowding her skull. Should she make it to adulthood, the girl would arrive with two hundred and six bones. Two and a half million sweat glands. Ninety-six thousand kilometers of blood vessels. Forty-six chromosomes. Seven meters of small intestines. Six hundred and six discrete muscles. One hundred billion cerebral neurons. Two kidneys. A liver. A heart. A hundred trillion cells that died and were replaced, again and again. But no matter how many ways she dismembered and quantified the body lying beside her, she couldn’t say how many years the girl would wait before she married, if at all, or how many children she would have, if any; and between the creation of this body and its end lay the mystery the girl would spend her life solving. For now, she slept. (49)