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A Phenomenal Debut

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

Published: July 9, 2014 (Issue # 1819)



  • Marras 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 TimesBook 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 Tolstoys work and tried to embody in my own.

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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Friday, Oct. 31


Put your grammar and logical thinking to the test in a fun and friendly environment during the British Book Centers Board Game Evening starting at 5 p.m. today. The event is free and all are welcome to attend.



Saturday, Nov. 1


The men and women who dedicate their lives to fitness get their chance to compete for the title of best body in Russia at todays Grand Prix Fitness House PRO, the nations premier bodybuilding competition. Not only will men and women be competing for thousands of dollars in prizes and a trip to represent their nation at Mr. Olympia but sporting goods and nutritional supplements will also be available for sale. Learn more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent during Diwali, the annual festival of lights that will be celebrated in St. Petersburg this weekend at the Culture Palace on Tambovskaya Ul. For 100 rubles ($2.40), festival-goers listen to Indian music, try on traditional Indian outfits and sample dishes highlighting the culinary diversity of the billion-plus people in the South Asian superpower.



Sunday, Nov. 2


Check out the latest video and interactive games at the Gaming Festival at the Mayakovsky Library ending today. Meet with the developers of the popular and learn more about their work, or learn how to play one of their creations with the opportunity to ask the creators themselves about the exact rules.



Monday, Nov. 3


Non-athletes can get feed their need for competition without breaking a sweat at the Rock-Paper-Scissors tournament this evening at the Cube Bar at Lomonosova 1. Referees will judge the validity of each matchup award points to winners while the citys elite fight for the chance to be called the best of the best. Those hoping to play must arrange a team beforehand and pay 200 rubles ($4.80) to enter.



Tuesday, Nov. 4


Attend the premiere of Canadian director Xavier Dolans latest film Mommy at the Avrora theater this evening. The fifth picture from the 25-year-old, it is the story of an unruly teenager but the most alluring (or unappealing) aspect is the way the film was shot: in a 1:1 format that is more reminiscent of Instagram videos than cinematic art. Tickets cost 400 rubles ($9.60) and snacks and drinks will be available.



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