Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is “a war story that’s about surgeons, not soldiers.” Set in Chechnya during its two wars with Russia—wars that involved a huge number of civilian casualties—it’s a hopeful book about a terrible time.
Most Americans don’t know much about the Chechen wars. Would you consider yourself an expert?
There wasn’t that much coverage, partly due to blanket Russian press censorship and their policy of sealing the borders. So I have felt a little like I’ve become an ambassador, but I’m a fiction writer. I’m a novelist. I’m not a historian; I’m not an expert by any means.
What did it take to feel like you could write this book?
By the time I started writing, Chechnya was a place I’d been thinking about for a while. I’d read all the nonfiction I could get my hands on, but I couldn’t find a novel about it. So the impetus for writing came from that. But the question of who am I to write this book is one I’m still asking myself. Michael Chabon was asked how he was able to write across race and class lines in Telegraph Avenue, and he said something along these lines—that he’d had these concerns from the moment he began writing to the moment he put down his pen, but while he was writing, he blocked them out so he could fully invest himself in his characters. And I had a similar experience.
Your book spans 1994 to 2004, but not in a straightforward or linear way.
That sort of fractured chronology is a narrative technique I think accords particularly well with dramatic situations. Wars break things; they break stories. I wanted to structure the book in a way that embodied what it’s about, where the broken time slowly jigsaws its way together.
How did you manage to put so much humor into a book about war?
This came from reading firsthand accounts, which, though they’re incredibly grim, are also filled with this strange and very dark humor. I thought a lot about David Benioff’s City of Thieves [set during the siege of Leningrad] and the way that he honors the suffering without forsaking humor or hope or joy. I tried to take a similar tack. There is hope in the book, particularly when the narrator shows us what happens to characters—both major and minor—in the future; those are some of my favorite moments. I wanted to write a book where there were no minor characters. And having the future bleed into the present shows that wars end: buildings are rebuilt; wounds heal.
Are there signs of that hope there now?
Absolutely. Grozny’s been largely rebuilt. But at the same time, I think the war is very much being waged inside its survivors. I met a man there whose village was destroyed, and he decided to build a replica in his backyard. He started nearly 20 years ago, and now it’s immense—a lost world that he dredged up. And it’s that sense of rescue and salvage that I was hoping to get to in the book.