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A Phenomenal Debut

An American best seller focuses on life and death in Chechnya.

Published: July 9, 2014 (Issue # 1819)



  • Marra’s time in St. Petersburg in 2007 was a source of inspiration for his novel.
    Photo: Smeeta Mahati

Anthony Marra is no literary wimp. In his powerful and tender first novel he fearlessly accounts for a pocket of the war-torn world that is usually entirely unknown, or grossly misunderstood, by illuminating the intimate and heart-breaking lives of two doctors and their families during the most recent Chechen conflicts. With courageous beauty and a touch of respectful humor he lays bare some of the harshest human injustices of our modern world. And Marra did it all before ever setting foot in the northern Caucasus. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” which receives its title from the definition of “life” in a medical dictionary, became an instant New York Times best seller and promises the emergence of a brilliant literary talent.

Marra was first drawn to the setting of his book in 2007 while studying Russian history at St. Petersburg State University and witnessing wounded veterans of the Chechen wars trawling for alms, and street gangs attacking people from the Caucasus during his time in the city. However, the Washington D.C. native said that experiencing the welcoming hospitality and unusual characters he encountered traveling in third-class train cabins across Russia, as well as wandering through the splendid grandeur of the “one big art museum” that is St. Petersburg, were some of the best months of his life.

The St. Petersburg Times recently spoke with the endearingly humble and passionate Marra via Skype, in between teaching sessions at the Stanford University campus where he is now based.

Q: The New York Times Book Review calls your book a “21st-century War and Peace,” saying that you seem to derive your astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy. Was he an influence? 

A: Tolstoy was certainly an influence. He can write about Napoleon or he can write about a peasant in the provinces and he treats both subjects with the same seriousness and the same emotional and intellectual rigor. When I went to Chechnya, I would ask people who their favorite author was and Tolstoy, nine times out of 10, was the answer. It struck me as peculiar that among these people whose one defining national characteristic, historically, has been defiance of Russia that the quintessential Russian novelist would so often pop up among their favorite writers.

A response that I heard repeatedly was that Tolstoy treated everyone like people. In Hadji Murad, he wrote about Chechens and he treated them like human beings. I think that being able to treat a character like a human being is something I really admire in Tolstoy’s work and tried to embody in my own.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Saturday, Oct. 25


AVA Expo, the eighth edition of the event revolving around all things pop, returns to Lenexpo this weekend. Geeks, nerds, dweebs and dorks will have their chance to talk science fiction and explore a variety of international pop culture. Tickets for the event can be purchased on their website at avaexpo.ru.



Sunday, Oct. 26


Zenit St. Petersburg returns home for the first time in nearly a month as they host Mordovia Saransk in a Russian Premier League game. Currently at the top of the league thanks to their undefeated start to the season, the northern club hopes to extend the gap between them and second-place CSKA Moscow and win the title for the first time in three years. Tickets are available at the stadium box office or on the club’s website.



Monday, Oct. 27


Today marks the end of the art exhibit “Neophobia” at the Erarta Museum. Artists Alexey Semichov and Andrei Kuzmin took a neo-modernist approach to represent the array of fears that are ever-present throughout our lives. Tickets are 200 rubles ($4.90).



Tuesday, Oct. 28


The Domina Prestige St. Petersburg hotel plays host to SPIBA’s Marketing and Communications Committee’s round table discussion on “Government Relations Practices in Russia” this morning. The discussion starts at 9:30 a.m. and participation must be confirmed by Oct. 24.



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