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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, Sept. 18


Get your nerd on at Boomfest, St. Petersburgs answer to the United States popular ComicCon. Starting today, this international festival of comics will take over venues throughout the city center and includes exhibitions of comics and illustrations, film screenings, competitions and the chance to meet the genres authors, artists and experts.



Friday, Sept. 19


SPIBAs newest addition to their Cultural Discoveries events is Handmade in Germany, an exhibition featuring unique handmade objects of a significantly higher quality than mass-produced items. The work of over 100 German manufacturers will be displayed during the event, which opens today in the Lutheran Church of Saint Peter and Paul on Nevsky Prospekt and runs through Sept. 28.



Saturday, Sept. 20


Starting on Sept. 18 and ending tomorrow is the Extreme Fantasy Wakeboarding Festival in Sunpark by Sredny Suzdalskoye lake in the Ozerki region of the city.


Those after something more laid back can instead head to Jazz and Wine night at TerraVino with legendary jazz guitarist Ildar Kazahanov. 12/14 Admiralteyskaya Emb.



Sunday, Sept. 21


Learn more about African culture and get some exercise during todays Djembe and Vuvuzela, a bike ride starting in Palace Square that includes several stops where riders can listen to the music of Africa or watch short films about the continent. The riders plan to set off at 4 p.m. and all you need to join is a set of wheels.



Monday, Sept. 22


Do you love puppetry? If so, then be sure to go to BTK-Fest, a five-day festival that starts on Sept. 19 celebrating the art. Contemporaries from France, Belgium, the U.K. and other countries will join Russian artists to put on theatrical performances involving a variety of themes, materials and eras. Workshops and meetings are also scheduled for a chance to discuss the artistic medium in further depth.



Tuesday, Sept. 23


Marina Suhih, Director of the External Communications Department at Rostelecom North-West, and Yana Donskaya, HR Director for Northern Capital Gateway are just some of the confirmed participants of todays round table discussion on Interaction with Trade Unions being hosted by SPIBA. Confirm your attendance with SPIBA by Sept. 22.


Kino Expo 2014, an international film industry convention, will be at LenExpo from today until Sept. 26. The third largest exhibition of film equipment in the world, the expo focuses on not only Russia but former Soviet republics as well.



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