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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Reviews Archive: "A Marker to Measure Drift" by Alexander Maksik and "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

From Schatje’s Reviews Archive, I’ve chosen two books which examine the role of memory after a civil warA Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik is about the civil war in Liberia and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra is about the conflict in Chechnya. 

Review of A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik
   3 Stars

Jacqueline is on Santorini, a Greek island, but she is not a tourist. She has escaped from the horrors of civil war in Liberia where her father was a loyal follower of President Charles Taylor (who years later was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity). Alone and adrift, she must grapple with a past that haunts her and find a way back into normal society.

The novel is about memory, specifically how to live with memories: “to live, one must be able to live with memory because memory was the constant. Even for [Jacqueline], even in such a precarious life, when there was danger and uncertainty everywhere, when her immediate life demanded so much of her, still, memory was the constant.” Jacqueline has difficulty separating memories from her current reality: “It was becoming more and more difficult to distinguish what was happening and what had happened. What was memory and what was not.” She sees and hears loved ones who are not there, especially her mother who constantly dispenses advice about how to behave in situations in which Jacqueline finds herself. Understandably, Jacqueline finds herself questioning her sanity: “She was alone. . . . Nothing but memory and memory seemed like madness. . . . she was again having a difficult time distinguishing between madness and memory.”

Jacqueline escaped from horrors about which she has spoken to no one. When she does eventually give voice to her traumas, she finds “the distance between recollection and experience is shortening. It is difficult to distinguish between memory and storytelling, between storytelling and experience, between this present life and the other.” The suggestion is that by telling her story, she begins her healing, though her future is my no means secure. It is significant that she has chosen to live on an island which is in constant threat of an earthquake or volcanic eruption; a woman she meets tells Jacqueline, “’We are not a permanent place.’” Of course, given her past experiences, one can understand why she thinks “And maybe that was the way to live. Always in fear of ruin.”

I found the book a slow read at the beginning; it took me a while to become engaged. Much of the first part is disorienting since we see the world from the protagonist’s interior monologue and so there is little explanation. Facts about her situation and past are revealed slowly as she focuses on day to day survival: satisfying her hunger, finding shelter, and trying to avoid thinking too much about the brutalities in her past. Of course, the reader’s feelings of disorientation are a reflection of Jacqueline’s feelings; utterly alone, homeless, and impoverished, she lives in a perpetual state of uncertainty.

Some of the reader’s questions are never answered. How did Jacqueline come to Santorini? (The beauty of the island serves as a dramatic contrast to the ugly memories that haunt Jacqueline, and the wealth of the tourists contrasts her destitution, so the author’s choice of the location serves a literary purpose, but I would have liked to know how she got there.) Does Jacqueline face real danger from the Senegalese men and, if so, why? (If this encounter is intended to create suspense, why is it not further developed?) Why was Jacqueline, the daughter of a government minister, spared by the rebels? (The rebel leader’s explanation does not seem realistic.) Why does Jacqueline express such hatred for Bernard? (Disappointment and disdain I can understand, but her beating a rock with a “wild violence” imagining she “swung hard enough to break Bernard’s teeth, to shatter his jaw, to crack his skull, to break his fine nose . . . until he was senseless and bloodied” seems extreme.) Why doesn’t Jacqueline call Helen when she believes Helen’s family would help her. (It might be pride or a reluctance to talk that keeps her from making that phone call to London but some clarification would be helpful.)

I found myself getting frustrated with Jacqueline. She tends to see herself as a victim and never really examines her or her family’s culpability. She lived a life of privilege in Liberia and even worked for the government. Having attended an English boarding school, she had opportunities to see the outside world and yet she accepted the status quo unquestioningly. She acknowledges only that she erred by returning to her home country despite her mother’s pleas to the contrary and by not listening to her lover’s many repeated warnings about what was happening. She describes herself and her family as “willful, arrogant, stupid, blind, proud” but never actually considers their behaviour as directly enabling Taylor’s atrocities. She is harsher with her father, but even then she considers his great mistake was that “’He kept us [in Liberia] too long.’” I hoped Jacqueline would demonstrate more personal growth, but perhaps my expectations were too high.

Occasionally, I felt like my emotions were being manipulated as I read this book. This was especially true when reading the climax. A pregnant sixteen-year-old seemed added for extra horror. The graphic nature of the denouement overshadows the rest of the novel; it is distracting and detracts from the overall quality of the novel. “Shock and awe” is not a literary technique.

Despite its flaws, the book has sufficient qualities to recommend it. The lyrical language, for example, is certainly noteworthy. The novel definitely qualifies as interpretive fiction with its serious themes which do indeed give the reader food for thought. Along with A Marker to Measure Drift, I’d suggest reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (whom Maksik mentions in his Acknowledgements as a “partner in writing what we do not know”) which also examines the role of memory in a civil war, and My Heart is Not My Own by Michael Wuitchik which describes the civil war in Sierra Leone, a conflict in which Charles Taylor was involved.

Review of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
   4 Stars

An old Soviet medical dictionary defines life as “a constellation of vital phenomena – organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” All of these phenomena are witnessed in this novel’s portrayal of life in war-torn Chechnya between 1994 and 2004.

Eight-year-old Havaa becomes an orphan when her father is “disappeared.” Akhmed, a neighbour, takes her to a nearby city to Sonja, an ethnic Russian physician, and convinces her to shelter the young girl if Akhmed works at the bomb-shattered hospital where Sonja is the only doctor. The novel travels back and forth between the two Chechen wars, and the stories of Sonja and Akhmed and Havaa’s family and neighbours are gradually revealed. The lives of the major characters prove to be interconnected in surprising ways, but in ways that appear credible and not just coincidental.

The lives of all the characters are dominated by loss: Sonja is searching for her sister Natasha; Havaa has lost her entire family, Akhmed is losing a wife to illness; Khassan, a neighbour and friend of Akhmed, has lost a son due to his decision to become an informer; Eldar, Havaa and Akhmed’s village, has lost 42 inhabitants.

Memory is one of the few things within the control of the characters and several of them undertake amazing acts of remembrance: Akhmed paints portraits of the villagers who died or disappeared; Khassan writes a history of Chechnya and records memories of Havaa’s family to help her remember her parents; Havaa has mementos from each of the refugees who sought shelter in her family home; Natasha painted a cityscape that no longer exists because of bombings.

The novel is not an easy read. It describes torture, disappearances, betrayals, human trafficking, infidelity, amputations, and constant fear. Some of the images depicting man’s inhumanity to man are harrowing.

Despite the atrocities depicted, there is nonetheless hope. There are people who have maintained their humanity, and it is their actions that provide hope. Acts of goodness in the past affect the future. For example, Havaa’s father is very kind in his treatment of others, including Akhmed; that kindness can be seen as influencing Akhmed’s protection of Havaa and his compassion for even those who intend him harm. The author’s belief that a more positive future will unfold is indicated by the flashforwards that are included: “In twenty-eight years and seven months . . . the girl would meet the man she was to marry nine years later. At the age of forty-six she would have her one and only child . . . At the age of sixty-eight she would hold her first grandson . . . ” And then there’s a scene in The Landfill, “a place of unimaginable torture and pain,” where a man experiences “an immense, spinning joy.”

Most North Americans probably know little about Chechnya and the Chechen wars; reading this book certainly opens one’s eyes to the violence experienced by those caught in the midst of the conflict. In the novel, an informer’s actions are the result of unimaginable violence directed towards him; one cannot help but wonder whether Chechnya’s violent past might be a motive for the Chechen immigrants who were the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings.

This book, written in beautiful language, touches on the best and worst of humankind. It is definitely worth reading.