One of the crueller ironies of war is that the best novels about them are often told by people who weren’t on the front lines. Thomas Pynchon served in the Navy, but well after World War II, the conflict that infuses “Gravity’s Rainbow” with terror.
In “Schindler’s Ark’’ the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally conjured the Holocaust’s horrors 40 years after the fact by pulling on a thread of history.
In his debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” Anthony Marra, an American from Oakland, Calif., grabs one of the thorniest threads of recent Russian history and weaves a powerful tale.
Set between 1994 and 2004 in Chechnya, when Russia went to the war with the breakaway republic, it is a story, like Keneally’s, about the intersection of opportunism and kindness in armed conflict.
Marra’s two heroes are doctors working in a war-ravaged hospital. As the book opens, Sonja, an ethnic Russian, is deep into her career amputating mine-shattered limbs. She has learned how to treat pain with heroin rather than morphine because it’s easier to buy on the black market. She is one of three people running a hospital that should be staffed by 500.
Akhmed is a former art school student who barely passed his medical exams. During the first Russian invasion, he plied his former skills more successfully, drawing the faces of the missing for anguished mothers. One day he is pressed into service by a rebel general held together by stitches of dental floss. It is Sonja’s handiwork.
The forces that bring these two characters together are brutal and hard to forget. Russian authorities abduct Akhmed’s neighbor and return him without fingers — which were lopped off by bolt cutters. Another neighbor’s son has become an informant, and it is his greed that sets the book in motion.
“A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” is densely imagined, and yet cinematic in the after-image. The moment Akhmed walks into the hospital with Havaa, the young daughter of his FINGERLESS AND NOW dead neighbor, and presses the girl into Sonja’s care rivals anything Michael Ondaatje has written in its emotional force.
Trust, in a world riddled by betrayal, develops slowly between Akhmed and Sonja. Havaa is the bridge. Both doctors are missing someone, and they latch on to the little girl with the emotional opportunism of the grieving.
This story would have been enough for a novel, but Marra is not a small-book writer. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” bulges with side plots and characters. Just when you think the book is through introducing people, we meet more.
Everyone is suffering a loss. Khassan, father of the informant, has spent his life writing a million-word history of Chechnya, which has lived in one form of foreign rule or other since the 15th century.
When the war begins he burns it and starts telling a private story for his offspring in the hope they’ll live in a future where ancient history needn’t be submerged.
As in Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated,” Marra’s characters keep themselves alive by telling and listening to stories. Akhmed spins yarns to his friend’s dying wife. During the invasion of Chechnya, Natasha, Sonja’s sister who later goes missing, reads the first published volume of Khassan’s Chechen history.
There are perhaps too many coincidences to be sustained. The novel also zigzags needlessly across time. Every other chapter unfolds in 1994 or 2004, and in those same chapters are flashbacks. War indeed ruptures time; in fact, Marra reminds that when Chechnya broke away it established its own time zone. Still, fewer jumps would have allowed this book to build a sense of momentum.
There is one benefit to the murky pace of “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” It is easy to enjoy Marra’s ability to create an image. This book teems with gorgeously depicted terrible things. A mother asleep in war-time dark knows which child she is holding by the widths of THE CHILD’S fingers. Unexploded shells are covered with looted toilet bowls.
Again and again Marra honors the atrocity of war with specificity. At the hospital, after an amputation, one man’s “stump poked from the edge of the white bedsheet like a rotten log through snow cover.”
At one point, Sonja has a suspicion that Akhmed is an informer. She takes him to a warehouse where he has about five seconds to say the right thing AS A GUARD PRESSES A GUN INTO HIS SPINE. His thought: “He didn’t want to die before an audience of stolen refrigerators.”
There is very little that can redeem senseless killing — God or dark humor. For many of the characters they are the same thing. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” horrifies and then shows how it is possible to laugh at horror with resilience and adaptation.
“Don’t insult me,” a smuggler tells Sonja when she asks whether she can really get the items she needs. “I can steal the spots off a snow leopard.”
There are many reasons to read “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.” To enter the tragedy of Caucasus history that has been dishonored by THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS, ALLEGEDLY COMMITTED BY TWO ETHNIC CHECHEN IMMIGRANTS ; to marvel at the lack of fear in a writer so young. To read a book that can bring tears to your eyes and force laughter from your lungs. These are all astonishing things for a book written because its author was surprised to discover a novel about Chechnya didn’t exist in English. But the one I kept returning to, the best reason to read this novel, is that this story reminds us how senseless killing often wrenches kindness through extreme circumstances.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of the upcoming “How to Read a Novelist.’’