JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. The debut novel from writer Anthony Marra happens to be set in a world that most of us only have conjectures about: Chechnya, the war-torn, Russian republic which has long sought its independence. Marra traveled to Chechnya to write a lyrical and heartbreaking novel set amid daily violence. People disappear, informers betray, and those with humanity suffer- but not before adding to a tapestry that is compelling and spellbinding.
It involves two doctors colluding to save the life of a child. The novel is called "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." Anthony Marra, welcome to the program.
ANTHONY MARRA: Thanks so much for having me.
LYDEN: This is a beautiful novel, and you apparently started studying Russian while working as a night porter in Edinburgh. Now, I know you're from Washington, D.C., so how did that happen?
MARRA: I spent my junior year abroad, first in Prague, and then in St. Petersburg. And the summer before that, I worked at a five-star hotel in Edinburgh as a night porter. And I had a lot of long hours, and then I had one of these do-it-yourself Russian textbooks. And I learned the alphabet and, you know, a few phrases. But I wasn't exactly "Good Will Hunting."
LYDEN: Well, if that kept you up at night in order to do your job, it really turned out to be in a good place. But this novel starts in a very dark place. "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" begins when the man named Dokka has been taken away by Russian troops, and his friend knows that he's never coming back. And that man is Akhmed. He rescues Dokka's daughter. Tell us who these people are and what happens.
MARRA: The novel begins, as you said, in this village in 2004 when this man, Akhmed, who is a hapless and complacent but good-natured doctor, watches as his next-door neighbor is abducted by Russian soldiers. And later on that evening, he finds this 8-year-old girl, the neighbor's daughter, hiding in the woods, and he takes her to the only safe place he can think of, which is a hospital run by this brilliant and unsentimental surgeon named Sonja.
And Sonja agrees to take in this girl, and these three characters and the unusual family they form really stay at the heart of the book.
LYDEN: You're writing about those who are touched by the war, but these aren't the decision makers. And there are people who tried to make sense out of things. Sonja and another woman are basically the only ones left at the hospital. It's why she wants Akhmed to work with her.
MARRA: Absolutely. I was much more interested in writing a novel about the people sort of caught in the middle of all this. It's a novel about surgeons. It's not a novel about soldiers. It's a novel about people who are trying to transcend the hardships of their circumstances by saving others.
LYDEN: Why did you decide to set your novel in Chechnya?
MARRA: I studied, as I mentioned, in St. Petersburg, and I arrived shortly after the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, presumably for her reporting from Chechnya.
LYDEN: On Russian crimes there. And, of course, she was Russian, and she was murdered in Moscow.
MARRA: Exactly, yeah. And I lived in an apartment a few blocks from a metro station where Russian veterans of the Chechen wars would come to talk, to drink, to ask commuters for spare change. And so Chechnya was very much in the air there at the time. And I realized that, like many Americans, I didn't know the first thing about it. So I began reading various histories and journalistic accounts of the region and quickly became fascinated with it.
It's a region that's inspired writers like Tolstoy and Lermontov and Pushkin. It was really these stories, though, of ordinary people trying to retain their humanity despite the vast geopolitical forces attempting to strip them of it that really moved me deeply.
LYDEN: They considered you a tourist when you went there, right?
MARRA: Yeah. I went there in July of 2012. It was after much of the book had been written. And it was more of a fact-checking expedition than a research trip. For example, in a previous version of the book, there was a scene set on an escalator. And when I got there, I actually visited the first escalator to be built in Chechnya, and it was built three years after the scene in my book took place. And people would bring their kids to ride and play on this escalator. And so I had to go back through and take out any extraneous escalators.
LYDEN: You do have a lot of the creative experience woven through the text. One of the protagonists who we've been talking about, the doctor, Akhmed, has carved the faces of disappeared villagers and hung them on trees, the little girl who's rescued after the abduction of her father, Havaa, is always inventing these amazing persona and costumes. When you went to Chechnya, did you see people doing creative things that tried to make sense of the world around them?
MARRA: Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the natural impulses to destruction is creation. When I was in Chechnya, I met a man there named Adam. And he had spent the past 20 years building this replica of the village he grew up in. He began it with just a few series of outbuildings. And then he began pouring stone from the mountain to build these stone watchtowers. He dug irrigation canals. He dug a lake. He spent several years searching for the exact boulder to create this strange museum, this salvaged lost world that was partially based on his childhood village and partially based on this idyllic image of a Chechen past he had in his mind.
LYDEN: Where does this beautiful title, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," come from?
MARRA: I was flipping through a medical dictionary - as one does.
LYDEN: As one does.
MARRA: ...and I came across this definition for life. It was a constellation of vital phenomenon, and the sub-entry was organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction and adaption. And as life is structured as a constellation of these six phenomena, the novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters as they run from, and search for, and collide with, and ultimately find one another.
LYDEN: That's Anthony Marra, author of the new novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." It's been a real pleasure talking with you.
MARRA: Thank you so much.