Friday, February 28, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse Review: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Welcome to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a blog-hop to exchange reviews of our favorite reads. I read two great books this month: this one, and Wave, a grief memoir I review over at The Writing Sisterhood. Both of my reviews are edited forms of reviews I first posted on Goodreads.

"What did any one person matter, when pounded against the anvil of history?” That sentence, from the novel, is what I see as the theme of this book. History is a hard anvil for many parts of the world right now, and Chechnya's the setting for this particular pounding. But Marra's novel is not so much about the politics, ideologies, or even history of Chechnya (though you get some of that). It's a book about what it's like to be a one little person trying to live your life in a family, a home, a village, and a country that has become an endless war zone.

“...she stood back and wiped the sweat-sting from her eyes. The air was clean. Her hands brown with dirt. Pride surged through her, raw and immense; she had believed happiness to be an absence—of fear, of pain, of grief—but here it roared in her as powerful as any sadness.” 

This is an incredible book. It's a brutal catalog of the horrors of war in a faraway, cold, miserable place, but it's also a testament to human dignity and resilience. The writing, too, is virtuosic: I found myself rereading passages just to savor the beauty of Marra's prose. If it wasn't a library book, I'd have highlighted half of it.

“I've always though Marx's view on religion was the one thing he got right. Faith is a crutch.
If you step on a land mine,” Akhmed said, the crutch becomes the leg.”


Chechnya. In case you were wondering.
Some reviewers have described the book as confusing, as it's told by an omniscient narrator who is privy not only to everyone's perspective but also to the past and future. POVs switch rapidly between the large cast of characters, and Marra employs the unusual strategy of jumping forward in time when he lands on a particular character he likes, even if it's a nameless character who only exists on one page. You will suddenly leap forward into that character's future, getting a quick rundown on what happens the rest of her life and how she dies.

Why does he do this? I think it goes back to that theme: "what does any one person matter?" Every character matters deeply to himself—and to his family and friends. Even torturers, even cynical informers, even heroin addicts. War stories are typically about battles, generals, nations clashing. This war story focuses on friends, lovers, parents and children. You learn to care about each character in this little forested section of Chechnya, and you feel so frustrated on their behalf, because you realize this is real. There really is a war there, and people like this, people like you and me, are shoved around like so many tiny unimportant pawns. 

You are a coward, she said, and with that one word wrote a denunciation, a biography, and a prophecy.”

If it sounds like a relentless catalog of pain and brutality, take heart: there's actually a surprising amount of humor. Almost all of it comes from dialogue. For example, when a surgeon in a ruined hospital makes a reference to the Bee Gees, an old woman intones, "You can tell by the way I walk I'm a woman's man, no time to talk." The surgeon expresses shock that this semi-senile Chechen would know the song, to which the old woman responds, "People used to recite it in the war. I didn't know it was a song. For the longest time I thought it was from the Qur'an." Moments like this make the frozen, blood-splattered narrative bearable. The ending, too, was incredibly moving (I reached for tissues) without being at all surprising, since we pretty much know most of it already thanks to the flash-forwards. It's hard to believe the central span of the book takes place over only five days.

“Entire years had passed when he was rich enough in time to disregard the loose change of a minute, but now he obsessed over each one, this minute, the next minute, the one following, all of which were different terms for the same illusion.”
Anthony Marra. Yes. He is 28 years old.

By the end we understand how each of the disparate characters is connected (often in ways they themselves never understand) and we learn about most of their futures. That we know so much about them, but they are kept in the dark about their own stories, feels very real. So much of our own lives will remain forever unknown to us, especially regarding our connections to other people. By showing us the limitations of the characters’ knowledge, we're reminded how we will never really know our own stories, not fully.

“At the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock wave of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the mast, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

15 comments:

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  2. From the snippets you shared, I think the prose would be absolutely lovely to read. I do struggle a lot with the omniscient voice though. I can probably understand the confusing take some reviewers had of this book. It begins to feel like too many characters vying for attention on the page, and I have a hard time connecting to any one character. The topic sounds absolutely fascinating. There's something like war, or in this case, continuous war that, like you said, is "a testament to human dignity and resilience."

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    1. "I do struggle a lot with the omniscient voice though." It is jarring at first. We are so trained to expect a very particular kind of writing in American fiction: linear, tightly focused on one POV (or a few, at most, but limited—not omniscient), plot driven, action-packed. This feels almost 19th-century!

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  3. "By the end we understand how each of the disparate characters is connected (often in ways they themselves never understand) and we learn about most of their futures. That we know so much about them, but they are kept in the dark about their own stories, feels very real. So much of our own lives will remain forever unknown to us, especially regarding our connections to other people. By showing us the limitations of the characters’ knowledge, we're reminded how we will never really know our own stories, not fully."

    Yes, I have been working on this a lot lately, though from the other side of the coin. I know almost nothing about any of the people I'm connected to. They're walking around doing things and I rarely know why. I can make educated guesses, but they're still just guesses. The more I embrace that, the calmer and more relaxed I am. Which is not to say that I am calm or relaxed, I've spent too many years of being neurotic for it to all go away just yet. But it does help because I used to assume that everybody's reactions to me were about me and I'm not sure that's the case very often.

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    1. I know what you mean! We're all a little solipsistic. We just have no idea what's going on inside anyone's head except our own, and even then. Sometimes I think it's amazing society works at all; we're all such strangers to each other. Have you seen Rashomon? I haven't yet, but I keep hearing about it: one event, told from a lot of different viewpoints, showing how perspective is everything. I feel like that's part of what Marra's doing here.

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  4. What stunning passages you've chosen to share. Wow. This book looks like a must-read. The pain and suffering in that part of the world is perhaps not well-understood by those of us who live so far from it. When the relentless brutality is broken up by glimpses of humanity and humor it makes such a book bearable.

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    1. Marra said he added the humor later, after talking to actual Chechens (he didn't have a chance to visit Chechnya till most of the book was written) and realizing how hilarious they are. You can imagine how that might be a good survival trait.

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  5. This sounds like a top-of-the-line bottle of champagne book, and I'll be sure to look for it. (WARNING: My book is "bubbly", but it's more like a bottle of beer...)

    Thanks for the recommendation, Stephanie. You're a natural at writing reviews, and the quotes you shared are intriguing and lyrical. On my way to Amazon to look for this book now.

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    1. Thanks, Susan! I like "beer bubbly," too. :)

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  6. Your opening quote is much like the quote I opened with for my review of Brave New World. It sounds like the two books have similar themes, though taken in completely different directions.

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    1. I haven't made it through BNW enough to make connections, but I definitely recommend you read my blog post below this one. It's pretty relevant.

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  7. This one is definitely on my TBR, but I haven't got around to buying it yet. I'll get to it someday.

    Thanks for the great review.

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  8. Wow! Sounds like a powerful book. And yes, he's annoyingly young. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances - that can't be easy but it's a great way to connect with the reader.

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  9. I haven't read this, just fallen in love with it via your review. Thank you :-)

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  10. A great review and what a young author. Good luck to all the people involved in such conflicts, it's a wonder we allow it to go on in this day and age.

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