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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

Thursday, Aug. 28


Learn more about the citys upcoming municipal elections during the presentation of the project Road Map for the Municipal Elections being presented this evening in the conference hall on the third floor of Biblioteka at 21 Nevsky Prospekt. Steve Kaddins, a coordinator for Beautiful St. Petersburg, which gives residents an online forum to lodge complaints about infrastructure problems in the city, will be on hand to answer any questions. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. and is open to all.



Friday, Aug. 29


Park Pobedy will feature the sights and sounds of the world outside of Russia during the Open Art International Festival today. Taste foreign cuisine, learn how to make tea like the Chinese or relax in a hammock during the free event. Although entrance is free, you must register beforehand if you wish to attend.



Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in Downton Abbey if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russias best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russias most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkins, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontovs short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library Systems website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Clubs weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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