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Monologue discussion: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

After finishing the book two days ago, this is the time we go (or I go, since this is a party with myself) to discuss about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra. Questions used in this discussion can be found here, courtesy of LitLovers.

Talk about each of the characters—Akhmed, Haava, Sonja, Natasha, Khassan, and Ramzan. Do you care about any of them? Whom do you find particularly sympathetic? Do your opinions of any of the characters change over the course of the novel?

Oh this is going to be a long post, I reckon. Here’s the thing, it is very hard to not care about any of the characters in the book. The author did such amazing job to built this close relationship between the characters and the reader that you can’t help to invest and engage yourself a lot with whatever happened to them. I find Sonja and Khassan to be the characters that I most sympathise with. There is something about the sacrifice that they made, however later it is in the story, that just broke me. Imagine, having to throw everything for a sacrifice that at times feels like nothing but a waste of time and energy. I would like to think I’m fairly open towards the character, but it was really had to have a better opinions for Natasha and Ramzan. I can feel the pain that Natasha had gone through especially during the first Chechen War, but her sudden decision to leave the hospital to go to the refugee camp was an impulse I could not understand. Of course the simple reasoning would be that she needed to get away from the heroin available freely in the hospital, but she could have at least leave a message or something. It was funny to see how willing she is to accept her premature death but she was unwilling to fight her heroin addiction. I still can’t understand that, I wished I was capable enough to understand the reasoning. As for Ramzan, it was funny that he chose his dignity the first time and gave up his dignity the second time, although in a twisted different way. But then again, war always change everybody; you would make choices that given a different circumstances you would not have chosen the said choice.


One of the book’s themes is our inability to know the depths of another being. In a beautiful paragraph (end of Chapter 3) Sonja ponders Haava who is lying next to her—Haava possesses 206 bones, 606 muscles, 2.5 million sweat glands, and 100 billion cerebral neurons; all this Sonja can know. She cannot fathom, however, “the dreams crowding [Havva’s] skull” or “the mystery the girl would spend her life solving.” Do you find that to be true in real life—how deeply can we know another being? Does fiction, perhaps, allow us insights into other beings that we cannot attain in our own lives? Do you feel you know the loved ones closest to you?

This is why, even though finding a good fiction is like finding a needle in a haystack, I still read fictions. Fictions gave you the possibility to get into the head and the motives to other people that in real life you would not have been gifted enough to know. I wholeheartedly believe that it is impossible for one person to know the others for sure; there will always this last bit of secret that someone would have kept it in the farthest part of their life. I might have been known who has a nosey attitude, but even I know there would something that I could have never know about my loved ones, however close we are.


Follow-up to Question 2: The narrator frequently jumps ahead by years, even decades, to inform readers of what happens to various characters—whether they live…or die…or grow senile…. What effect does this create on you, the reader?

Oh God! This is one of favourite thing about the book. The idea that you had a glimpse of their future, whether good or bad, brings you peace and closure. At first the jumping theme were confusing, but after you got used to it, it was one of the things that I kept on waiting to happen. The idea that you have invest a lot of your time reading on these characters and not knowing what were to happened to them would drive me angry, so it was very calming to know about their future. Not only was I became calmer, in a weird way it gives me this hopeful feeling that no matter how bad life can get, there is always an ending that you can attain if you’re willing to make the choices for yourself, however small it is.


A emphasis on art runs throughout the novel. Akhmed draws portraits and posts them throughout the village; Haava “rebuilds” the body of her childhood nemesis, Akim, using Akhmed’s portrait of him; Natasha recreates the view of a cityscape blown away by shelling, and Maali is nearly as invested in Natasha’s project as Natasha herself. Why is art so significant in this book? What role does art play in Akhmed’s and Natasha’s lives—and in the lives of others.

I can’t say for sure why art became such a significant part in this book, but if I might make a guess, it might have something to do with art is something that human can leave behind even when they had left this earth. Natasha ends up dying in a forest, no one who knew her would have never known about what had happened to her, but at least her mural stays there and became something that people could looked at and admired, and eventually remembered Natasha for. In the same way, it was like Maali and Akhmed; Akhmed’s portraits that he posts throughout the village works as a reminder of the villagers who used to live in the village and eventually leave as a reminder of a physician who is more capable of an artist instead of a healer. I don’t understand art, nor do I find art an interesting thing, but I guess art is something romantic that you could leave behind for others to remember you by when you have left this world.


Talk about the characters’ religious beliefs or lack of beliefs? How does the war affect the faithful…and nonfaithful alike? How would your faith be affected?

There was a line that Akhmed says about why he prays everyday, he said it was something mechanical. What I took from that is Akhmed prays for five times a day, everyday, only because it was something that came natural to him, and not necessarily because he believes in the act of praying itself. It was not until moments before he was taken by the Feds that he actually prays for the act of praying itself, because he wanted to believe in the power of praying, of the existence of God. I guess in time of war where everything is nowhere close to normal, where everything that you know to be normal was taken away from you, it is nice to have the one last thing that you know had existed when everything was still normal, and in this case is the act of praying for five times a day, everyday. It is the single last thing Akhmed can do that he still had control of, and this might have been his last anchor that keeps him sane in the midst of craziness. I forever hoped and prayed that I would never live to experience war, however romantic it looked like to have survived a war. But, had that misfortune would have happened to me, I would not have any idea how my faith would affect me; it’s nice to think that your faith grew stronger, but most probably I would just gave up on my faith entirely.


In interviews author Anthony Marra has said he chose to write about Chechnya after spending his junior year in St. Petersburg during the time of the Chechnyan war. While there, he was fascinated by accounts of how ordinary people behaved in extraordinary situations—the kinds of moral choices they had to make. Talk about the characters in A Constellation of vital Phenomena who dramatize the tough moral choices Marra refers to…especially Ramzan and Khassan. Are there others? What choices do they make and why? How might you have responded in such horrific circumstances? Does morality change depending on the context?

As I have mentioned before, the decision that Ramzan made when he was taken to the landfill the second time is totally understandable; it was the will to survive that had pushed him to became the informer in his village. I guess anybody in his position would have done the same thing. I would have never agreed with whatever lies or not lies that he told the General, but it is understandable. It’s hard to really pinpoint your answer when it comes about someone’s actions and/or choices that they made during extreme conditions such as war. What Khassan did as a retaliation to what Ramzan did was also understandable; he does not agree with what his son did but also at the same time he knew that his son was just trying to keep him alive, the next best thing he could do was to condemn his son in years of silent. It’s amazing how extreme someone can go to in times like war.I guess when it comes to morality, the values that were attached to it does not change, it would never change no matter what the conditions are. In whatever conditions, what Ramzan and Khassan did would still be judged as morally wrong and such cowardly act, but what they did became understandable because of the context of their situation.


SPOILER ALERTS! Follow-up to Question 6: Should Khassan have killed his son—is such an action just or moral? Does learning Ramzan’s backstory, change your opinion of him…perhaps justify his later actions?

I think if Khassan should have killed his son from the very beginning, if not to save the other villagers maybe to save Ramzan from turning into a horrible human being that Khassan see him for. But, I guess Khassan could not have done that because he knew that Ramzan is keeping him alive, healthy, and safe; who would ever done anything like that is Ramzan is dead? In the end, Khassan’s final push was because Ramzan gave Akhmed’s name to the Feds. Whether or not Akhmed was Khassan’s son, Khassan had always loved Akhmed more than Ramzan. He had finally reached the decision that what Ramzan was too much, so he finally finds the nerve to kill Ramzan, but if he were to succeed to kill Ramzan, I don’t think the killing would have been neither just nor moral, it would only became an act of revenge, because Ramzan had given out the name of the only person that Khassan was close with. There is no justification for what Ramzan did; everything that he had done is a choice that he made soberly and he had made it on his own accord. Maybe the initial push was because he was under torture but he kept on doing and willingly and it became easier for him the more often he gave out name to the General; I could never justify that but I could understand why he done all of his actions throughout the course of the book.


Trace the six-degrees-of-separation between the characters, their actions, and final consequences. In other words, how are the characters interconnected? What might the author be suggesting by such connectedness—both within the confines of the novel and, perhaps, in the real world outside the scope of the novel? What kind of worldview does Marra seem to project? Do the coincidences feel contrived? Or do you see them as organic, part of the gradual unfolding of the novel?

Oh wow, what a complicated question. I don’t think my incomprehensible-self is capable of answering this. I guess the idea of the six-degrees-of-separation is something that is a natural thing. Given the time in the world, I would have figure out my own six-degrees-of-separation; having said that, maybe the author was suggesting that even in the most extreme situation as war, there will always be that last connection of humanity that brings people close together if ever they had the time to figure it out (but who would, though? I mean, it’s in the time of war, finding that out is the least of my concern if I were them).


A great deal is made in the novel of the desire for characters to be buried at home. Notes with names and addresses are sewn into clothing so families can be notified and thereby claim the body of the loved one. Why is burial at home so important? Is it a tradition peculiar to that culture…or a universal desire?

Another question I could not answer, but I could probably guess. I’m not entirely sure if it has something to with the culture or the religious belief or if it is anything universal, but I guess the idea that you are buried at your home seems to be peaceful, especially during the times of war. How would it feel to be the family left behind not knowing what were to happened to them? And knowing that they have died and not being able to see and bury the body is surely something that is very painful to the family of the deceased. In a way, it is not only the request of the deceased to be buried at home because it is something that is part of their culture or their religious belief, but also the one last act of kindness for the family they left behind, that at least even in their death they still try to give one last chance for their family to see them and part away in a more dignified way.


The book contains a fair amount of humor—the banter between Akhmed and the nurse Deshi, the reference to Barbie Doll’s emaciated waistline, Akhmed’s confusion over Ronald Reagan and Ronald MacDonald, and his astonishment at how the U.S. elections transfer power from one president to the next—”It makes me wonder how [Russia] lost the Cold War.” Where else do you find humor…and why do you suppose the author included such moments in an otherwise dark story?

People would like to believe that there is always light even in the darkest of times, I guess that’s where humour comes in. People also said something like you can’t have happiness without sadness, I guess it also works vice versa, and that is why the author incorporates it in the story; it’s also to show that even in the times of war, you would try your best to be in control of the last of the normal things in your life that you can still control, what other things left for you to control if not your sense of humour?


As with the discussion (and I used this term lightly) for The Magician’s Lie, I would have been more than happy to keep on answering the questions but I guess 10 is enough. Not only would this bore people who might have accidentally stumble upon this post, but it felt really tiring to have a discussion of a book that you had enjoyed so much but only with yourself.

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