Natasha laughed. There was no beginning. “My sister won a scholarship to study in London, and everyone was so fucking proud of her.”
I thought this was going to be just another horrors-of-war story. Suffering, death, horror, and of course the hackneyed indomitable human spirit. Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s a funny thing. When you take something you’ve heard about vaguely on the news, some place you’ve never really thought about or seen on a map (somewhere near Russia, right?), and instead of making it a horrors-of-war yawn you turn it into the story of two sisters, there is no indomitable human spirit, there are just a bunch of exhausted, frightened people doing the best they can. Some will find it overly sentimental, I’m sure. I thought it was great.
But don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself, online, at Narrative. Or listen to the author read it himself. Then read the little thing in the left-hand column. This was Anthony Marra’s first published story, written as an MFA student at Iowa. He looks like Ernie from My Three Sons. He’s now got three other stories at Narrative, and I can’t wait to read them.
The story belongs to Sonja and Natasha, Russian Chechnyan sisters. Sonja is the smart one, and she’s off at the London College of Surgeons when the war starts. Natasha isn’t the smart one. What she is, is pretty. She figures that has value, too, and uses it as her way to get out of Chechnya. Boats, trucks, and she finds herself at “the breaking grounds.”
Natasha didn’t understand. What ground was to be broken? They were in a cellar, already underground. She looked at her dirty clothes, the soil rubbed against her plams, and understood. She was the ground.
Sonja can’t get in touch with her sister, so leaves the safety of London to return to Chechnya. The rest, well, you’ll have to read. A lot of this story is in the telling. It’s told out of order, in flashbacks and “meanwhile, back at the ranch” sections. The order in which information is revealed is, I believe, crucial to the effect of the story.
And that’s where I admire the writer the most. Anyone can tell “horrors of war” tales of three old women fighting over a loaf of bread, only to have it explode when the “winner” picks it up and detonates the land mine underneath. Anyone can tell the story of Ahmed, who is the one to start telling the legend of the imam and the mosque that becomes a central thread. We all know there are but two ends for all these people, even the little girl Havaa, whose name Sonja unapologetically forgets, and anyone could turn this into a tearjerker. But it took a writer with some talent to avoid pathos and turn it into a story that ties all these things together, to pick who will bear witness and who will be witnessed, that kept me hanging on every word until the final period.
The plot involving Ahmed puzzles me. I’m not sure why he’s in the story; I think it relates to the ethnic and religious divides in the country, echoing one theme from Natasha’s struggle. His tale comes very close to overt sentimentality. But I’m not complaining; I was moved, and heartbroken. I wouldn’t want a word changed.
Anthony Marra is now a Stegner Fellow at Stanford working on a novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” (a line from this story) set in Chechnya. Sounds like this story is a chapter, or perhaps the novel is an expansion.
I also found a very interesting blog post analyzing the story, in very technical terms, for “authorial intrusion.” I have to admit I’m a little lost, but given my brush with literary theory via Zin’s Second Person Study, I’m interested in learning more.