Trust and Betrayal in a Tale from Chechnya

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. It was almost two months ago that this city and the nation were shocked by the Boston Marathon bombings. The bombings focused world attention on the two suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers, and on Chechnya, the majority Muslim republic in southern Russia where the Tsarnaev family has its roots.
Chechnya is also the setting for Anthony Marra's debut novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena."  The book unfolds over five days in 2004, a time of war in Chechnya, with flashbacks of earlier conflict there in 1994. Oddly enough, Marra visited Chechnya only after writing about it. He says the relative calm he found there in 2012 masks a turbulent past.

Anthony Marra: The reality today is much different than it was 10 years ago, during the time when the novel is set.

Werman: Sure.

Marra: In 2003 the United Nations declared Grosny the most devastated city on Earth but if you go there today it's nearly entirely rebuilt. There are skyscrapers, there are, there's a brand new mosque, the largest in Europe, and you get the sense that this entirely new city has been transplanted on the ruins of its predecessor.

Werman: So "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,"  your novel, involves courageous Chechens and Russians. A doctor, Ahmed, who watches authorities abduct his neighbor, the father of a very charming little girl names Hava. There is this intensely driven Russian surgeon Sonia, then there's an informer who does some pretty despicable things but mostly seems haunted by his father's disappointment in him. No one seems really overtly political or religious. No one spouts a party line. Is there a reason you're not depicting Chechens who are, for lack of a better word, radicalized?

Marra: Yeah, the Chechens that we read about in the newspaper, the Chechens that pop up on CNN every couple of years, are these more religious, more radicalized Chechens. And I was much more interested in telling the story of just average people who were sort of caught in the middle of these two groups of armed thugs, and were trying to recover what has been lost over the course of these wards.

Werman: And when you say armed thugs you're talking about the radicalized Chechens as well as the Russian army that came in?

Marra: Yes, it's a toss up which of the two have been more detrimental to the country.

Werman: I mean, and Chechnya, from what I hear, is such a tough place to penetrate. You're an American who grew up in Washington, D.C., pretty comfortable life. Why Chechnya?

Marra: In college I studied in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and I arrived there shortly after the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated for her, presumably for her reportings from Chechnya. And I lived a couple of blocks away from a metro station where Russian veterans of the Chechnyan war would congregate to share stories and drink, and ask commuters for spare change. And Chechnya was very much in the air in Saint Petersburg there at the time. I started reading histories and various journalistic accounts of Chechnya, and quickly became just fascinated with its culture, with its traditions, its larger than life characters that have inspired writers like Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Lermontov.

Werman: I've read that you actually had not been to Chechnya when you wrote this.

Marra: Yeah, I began writing it when Chechnya was still quite a dicey place to visit as a foreigner. And I only visited around this time last year, after I was just about finished with the book, I had one final draft to go through.

Werman: And as far as Chechnya itself, I mean, once you got drawn in it seems like the place didn't release you. What was it about Chechnya that just pushed you to say I'm gonna write this novel about Chechnya?

Marra: This period of time in which the novel is set is a period where character is distilled through the conditions on the ground at the time. One's essence is sort of boiled to its most distilled state. There are heroes there and there are villains, but it's a very morally complicated place to set a story. And to dramatize those choices, one of the characters is a man named Kasan and he has spent his entire career writing this epic 3,000 page history of Chechnya and every time he gets close to finishing there is a shift in the political winds that require him to go back to the beginning and rewrite the novel. And his son, whom you mentioned is this informer, and Kasan this historian, is sort of this repository of Chechen history and culture, and has to decide what to do with the son who's sort of betraying all that. And while some of his choices, and the choices of all these characters, are ones that readers hopefully will never have to make for themselves, I think the ethical conflicts are ones that we can all probably relate to.

Werman: You know, despite Chechnya's grim side, or maybe because of it, there's a great gallows humor in your novel. One of the characters thinks that Ronald McDonald is the American president, and that whole passage kind of reads like Abbott and Costello's Who's on First bit. Was it hard to find comedy in this dark place?

Bevins: It was surprisingly easy. Comedy is one of the natural responses to horror. We laugh at what would otherwise make us cry, and when I visited Chechnya I was constantly surprised by the humor and the jokes that people were cracking. Usually they were at my expense.

Werman: Do you think novels like this have a role in somehow helping to keep violence at bay by pointing out its futility?

Bevins: Maybe no one book can ever really change the world but by reading literature, by seeing how people you would never meet on a daily basis live their lives, by seeing their hopes, by seeing the extent of their humanity it breaks through generalizations, through stereotypes. And once those things are broken I think it becomes a lot harder to demonize. It becomes harder to make these sort of blanket generalizations that can lead to violence.

Werman: Anthony Marra's debut novel is called "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena."  It will challenge your ideas about Chechnya. This book had a lot of folks, Anthony, in our newsroom staying up late. So thank you very much for speaking with us about it.

Bevins: Thank you so much for having me.