Literature review: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra
Anthony Marra will read on October 12 in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber as part of the IC Book Festival.

In Anthony Marra’s novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, set in Chechnya from 1994-2004, a time of the First and Second Chechen Wars, a soldier does not let a hemorrhaging pregnant woman pass to a hospital because her escorts forgot her I.D. She bleeds out at the checkpoint. The soldier explains leniency on his part, in this instance, could lead down the slippery slope to the unraveling of the entire Geneva Convention. In his mind, this senseless death gets rationalized.

One can rationalize anything — Hoover can close; Hoover can remain open; a parking lot can be built there — but one ought not to ever confuse one’s rationalization with universal truth.

Just as one ought not confuse a favorite slogan or cliche with universal truth.

Marra has little responsibility for the dustjacket narrative promoting his book. Sadly, though, this narrative entices us with near cliche. Constellation, it beckons, is a “story of the transcendent power of love in wartime.”


Spoiler alert: most of the characters in Marra’s book get killed, are horribly tortured (and then killed), or suffer the grief from the loss of those killed or horribly tortured. One small child survives the carnage of the two wars.

(It takes a child to give us the illusion of hope.)

Wars which end as much through exhaustion as enlightenment.

Back in the palpable world, there seems little damping of the immense human propensity to turn someone into an Other and then to demonize that Other with various degrees of ferocity.

And we do not have to go to Chechnya or Dagestan to find this.

The 20th Century was one continuous poem of nationalism and ethnic hate. The turmoil exploded and fizzled in cycles of horror as it moved around the globe. Expulsions, resettlements, and mass killings abounded in every decade. Armenians, Congolese, Don Cossacks, Ukrainians, Jews, Serbs, Roma, Greeks, Afghans, Muslims, Tibetans, Ugandans, Ethiopians, Hmong — and the list goes on — experienced the “love.” This glorious track record continues unabated in the 21st Century.

We should not be amazed. We don’t have to leave our neighborhoods to witness how quickly we can slice one another into Us and Them.

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In the village of Grounds, celebrating its 100 years only a few years ago, each household received a $10 centennial book. At the temporary anniversary headquarters, I witnessed a woman ask for her book. She was denied. Only households (house owners and apartment landlords) that paid a sewer bill were entitled to a book; and she was a renter.

I understand how the line was drawn there, though I hope revenues from sewer bills were not diverted to centennial festivities, but was this really the way Grounds wanted to treat its temporary residents in its biggest birthday year? There couldn’t have been more than thirty renting households in the village. Would it have been so outside the pale to gather $300 and provide each renting household with a commemorative book?

Though hardly unique to our society or moment in time, we like to push our flaws and shortcomings to the periphery or further down into the cracks. It makes our goodness seem, well, that much more pure, our compassion that much more solid, and our success that much more indisputable.

In Illumination City, our less permanent residents get written out of public space. Seems they can’t even lie on a park bench (What are those benches for?). Seems they can’t even use the ground, if they want to use the ground to sit upon.

We can rationalize all our separations from one another and all our elevations over one another.

It’s easy.

Refer back to the 20th Century.

We’re quite good at it.

Inspect the 21st Century.

The UNCHR reports there are now 45.2 million refugees in the world, the highest total in nineteen years.

We’re awash in bonanzas of debasement and disenfranchisement.

I don’t think our talent is lessening.

For the four characters still living at the end of Marra’s novel, I have little confidence any enlightenment they possess will soon nourish the entire human species.

Marra’s tale is a stunning. beautiful and compassionate account of good people caught in the messy and sometimes pathological enterprise of life. When he reads here in October at the Iowa City Book Festival, we will encounter a great book, a superb young author, and, undoubtedly, a fantastic person. But I don’t think we’ll brush up against transcendent love.

Not from reading this book anyway.

Even though I believe in art having such potency.

What art gives us are perspectives, analyses and recalibrations to develop and authenticate our robust and genuine practice in the world. Paintings and books may help, but it is up to us to live with sentience, dialogue, exuberance and empathy — blossoming into our potential.

Any encounter with transcendent love will be inversely proportional to how quickly we turn a neighbor into an Other and to how easily we can rationalize that designation.