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The debut novel from writer Anthony Marra happens to be set in a world that most of us only have conjectures about. In “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” Marra transports readers to Chechnya, a war-torn Russian republic that has long sought independence.
The lyrical and heart-breaking novel begins in 2004 when eight-year-old Havaa watches Russian rebels abduct her father, accused of aiding Chechen rebels, in the middle of the night. The little girl is later rescued by her neighbor, who colludes with another doctor to eventually form an unlikely family amid the daily violence.
“It’s a novel about people who are trying to transcend the hardships of their circumstances by saving others,” Marra tells All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden.
On the inspiration for his novel
“I began reading various histories and journalistic accounts of the region and quickly became fascinated with it. It’s a region that’s inspired writers like Tolstoy and Lermontov and Pushkin. It was really these stories though of ordinary people trying to retain their humanity despite the vast geopolitical forces attempting to strip them up that really moved me deeply.”
On Chechens trying to make sense of the world around them
“I think that one of the natural impulses to destruction is creation. When I was in Chechnya, I met a man there named Adam and he has spent the past 20 years building this replica of the village he grew up in…he dug irrigation canals, he dug a lake, he spent several years searching for the exact boulder to create this strange museum, this salvaged lost world that was partially based on his childhood village and partially based on this idyllic image of a Chechen past he had in his mind.”
On the origin of his title
“I was flipping through a medical dictionary and I came across this definition for life, it was a ‘constellation for vital phenomenon,’ and the sub-entry was organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction and adaption. And as life is structured as a constellation of these six phenomena, the novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters as they run from, and search for, and collide with, and ultimately find one another.”