If you saw the “selfie” that author Anthony Marra took of the two of us at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, you might think the playful young man who sidled up to me was possibly a waiter who had delivered my meal. You would never guess that the 28-year-old man had written a novel about a 10-year period in little-known Chechnya that was so sweeping and impressive reviewers have compared it to “War and Peace.”
A native of Washington, D.C., Marra was studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, when he got the chance to be among the first foreigners to go into the post-war republic of Chechnya. He knew so little about the country that he searched for novels about Chechens to understand their lives over the centuries. He found none in English so, as he told his audience at the festival, “I decided to write one.”
Don’t be put off by the puzzling title. The phrase constitutes a definition that a character finds in an old medical dictionary of life. It is defined as “a constellation of vital phenomena,” followed by six conditions that must always exist. And life, with all its ugliness and beauty, is what Marra portrays, using Chechnya during the war-torn years from 1994 to 2004 as the setting. He does a phenomenal job of telling his unsettling story in a way that drew me in with his first words.
Marra’s narrator gives an ironic view of the story’s background. In December 1994 as a result of an 8 percent approval rating and the desire to disprove the opposition party’s claim he had lost the territories of the former Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the Federal army “to execute the disarmament of all illegal armed units in Chechnya, or as they were known locally, the government.”
The story centers on a few characters in a tiny village whose lives are dramatically affected by the warring parties. In 2004, a kind man who draws portraits of the dead and missing, Akhmed, steps in to take care of his motherless, eight-year-old neighbor, Havaa, when her father is taken to his death and her house burned down. He brings her to a makeshift hospital overloaded with battle injuries, where Sonja, the only doctor, provides a safe place for the girl.
In spite of the subject, this is not a dark book. Marra finds ways to keep us reading. He often uses his sense of humor to offset the grimness. Learning of his medical training, Sonja accepts Akhmed’s help at the hospital even though he had yet to practice medicine. “He blamed his inability to find a job on prejudice within the Soviet Medical Bureau rather than on the fact that he had skipped a full year of pathology to audit studio art classes.”
Marra creates exquisite, lasting images. Covering refugees, he writes, “They appeared four years before [Havaa’s] father was taken, one or two at first, eyes glazed, as if they’d never seen a house, then more. They came stooped and waxen, downcast and wary … one long exhalation toward the mountains. Some carried the most necessary provisions: boots, woolen socks, more woolen socks, bribe money. Those who had lost everything, even their reason, carried the most ridiculous things: a man who lost his parents and children in the same Uragan rocket blast carried the key to the flat they perished in.”
Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles, who interviewed Marra at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, wrote in his review, “Here, in fresh, graceful prose, is a profound story that dares to be as tender as it is ghastly, a story about desperate lives in a remote land that will quickly seem impossibly close and important.” The Boston Marathon bombing and the struggles in the Ukraine come to mind.
Read more of Betty Hafner’s reviews at www.bettyhafner.com.