Transcending Hardships By Saving Others In 'Constellation'

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In his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra transports readers to Chechnya, a war-torn Russian republic that has long sought independence.

The lyrical and heart-breaking novel begins in 2004 when a doctor watches as Russian soldiers abduct his neighbor, who has been accused of aiding Chechen rebels. He later rescues the neighbor's 8-year-old daughter, then colludes with another doctor to form an unlikely family amid the daily violence.

"It's a novel about people who are trying to transcend the hardships of their circumstances by saving others," Marra tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden.

Interview Highlights

On the inspiration for his novel

"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."

On Chechens trying to make sense of the world around them

"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 has spent the past 20 years building this replica of the village he grew up in. ... 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."

On the origin of his title

"I was flipping through a medical dictionary ... and I came across this definition for life, it was a 'constellation for vital phenomena,' 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."

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