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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, Nov. 27


The Customs and Transportation Committee for AmCham meets this morning at 9 a.m. in their office on Ulitsa Yakubovicha.


Tickets are still available for local KHL team SKA St. Petersburgs showdown with Siberian club Metallurg Novokuznetsk tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Ice Palace outside the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. Tickets can be purchased on the teams website, at the arena box office or in their merchandise store on Nevsky Prospekt.


Celebrate one of Russian literatures most tragic figures during Blok Days, a two-day celebration of the 134th anniversary of the poets birthday. The tragic tenors work, which led to writer Maxim Gorky to hail him as Russias greatest living poet before his death in 1921, will be recited and meetings and discussions about his contributions to the Silver Age of literature in St. Petersburg will be discussed in the confines of his former residence.



Friday, Nov. 28


Join table game aficionados at the British Book Centers Board Game Evening. Held every Friday at 5 p.m., aficionados and amateurs alike can come take part in a variety of different games that test ones intellect and cunning.



Saturday, Nov. 29


Cats, dogs, birds, rodents and reptiles are just some of the things that will walk and crawl at Lenexpo convention center this weekend as part of Zooshow, a two-day exhibition featuring not only mans best friends but a four-legged fashion show, as well as a food fair that will help pet owners find out more about which kibbles are best for their hungry pets.



Sunday, Nov. 30


Remember the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Russo-Finnish war in 1939 during todays reenactment titled Winter War: How it Was. More than 200 people will take part in recreating the opening salvoes of the battle for the north in Kamenka, a small village situated between Vyborg and St. Petersburg, using authentic equipment and vintage vehicles from the era. The faux battle begins at 2 p.m.



Monday, Dec. 1


Serbia filmmaker Emir Kusturica is the featured guest this evening at the Lensovet Palace of Culture the Petrograd Side. Fans of the director will get the chance to watch his movie Black Cat, White Cat, as well as ask questions about his award-winning filmography. Tickets for the event, which starts at 7 p.m., start at 2,000 rubles ($42.50).



Tuesday, Dec. 2


Today is the final day of Takoy Festival, a three-week program of plays based on the works of Dostoevsky, Remarque and other famed European writers, whose work is transcribed for theatrical performances. Tonights festival finale is Fathers and Sons, a two-act drama staged by the Novosibirsk Academic Drama Theater based on Turgenevs classic about familial relations.



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