oh, shit moments

“I remember the City Park Prophet once said everything that isn’t darkness or death is a vision. I remember he said we are all God’s hallucinations.”

As I read further into Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, ostensibly about the second Chechnya war set in 2004, I begin to wonder how much people think about god and the afterlife when all the minutes of their each and every day are focused exclusively just on keeping one step ahead of any number of thugs who want to plant them in some garbage pit. Some might say that men and women turn to religion in such situations, perhaps to give them hope or consolation. In their hour of need and in great fear, perhaps their only comfort is a belief that all this will pass, that there will come a better time. I’m not so sure.

I am most fortunate never to have awoken in such a place, never to have had to defend my family with little more than my hands. I have never had to reach into an empty food bag to feed hungry mouths. My bad cards have never betrayed me into losing all that was on the table. No child has ever looked back over his shoulder because of my Sophie’s choice. I do not know what thoughts of god would mean to me if my family were beneath concrete rubble or a kidnapper had sent me the severed finger of a loved one.

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaAs I continue to read on into this book, I feel it is not so much a story about war as it is one about ordinary people asking how they can find meaning in life when their conventional prayers have failed them in their hour of greatest need. As Marra told one interviewer, Constellation is not about rebels and soldiers and their fight, but about human beings trying to salvage and recreate what has been lost. Sadly, some, if not most, of these losses are forever gone. There are simply vast patches of the past in this tapestry of lives torn apart that cannot ever be stitched back together. They cannot form a whole from so little of what is left.

I find overwhelming significance in these seemingly illusory scenes of a world at war, but I’m still stalled at how anyone can continue to have any faith in the future, let alone in some abstract sense of a just god and an afterlife of reward. There is only so much a person can endure when they’ve suffered such Job-like ordeals in this phantasmagoric landscape. As I try to pull myself back from such an extreme view, I still wonder how anyone could profess belief in such a cosmology. I know that many friends and other good souls will be quick to dismiss my skepticism. I choose to live with my doubts, though, not their certitude.

My point narrows down to one simple thought: The idea of someone dying in some horrific way or another is overwhelming, even as we look from afar in our relative comfort. A fellow human being is simply gone, forever. In some shell-pocked part of the world, aflame and strewn with the leftovers of life, scattered body parts, scorched flesh, crushed bones, and stench are often all there is to bury. Few people in warfare die intact. We pretend otherwise, as though the news reels are cartoons or video games. We should be ashamed and have our noses rubbed in this mud puddle of death, our mouths open so we taste and choke on the filth of it all.

When I think of religion as some moral code to live by, my first commandment is “Thou shalt not kill.” And it’s number six on the biblical list, wedged just below “honoring your parents” and before “not committing adultery.” The first four are about the role of the almighty, rules that perhaps suit the devout among us, but carry little weight with me. The stealing, bearing false witness and coveting at the bottom of the tally seem just to be common sense if you want to live in an orderly world. I’m more at peace with the single commandment of true import.

Like most people of a certain age, I carry some images around in my head that I would just as soon not have. These torturous clips will bedevil me for the rest of my life. I may be wrong, but I don’t think I pulled any of the triggers that sent a lot of lead flying way back when I used to hover about in helicopters. But in fact, I was complicit, even if I did none of the actual killing. In any wolf pack, there are hunters and killers. I was a hunter by trade. But, of course, there is always spillover.

In Marra’s book, there’s a lot of killing going on and little attention given to turning the other cheek or seeking forgiveness for lesser sins, whatever they may be. Marra gives us quite a few unsavories who would pop us for no more than a tootsie roll if the opportunity were right or the mood hit them, despite our pleas for mercy. We don’t get too many closeups of the look in their eyes when they’re on the other end of the barrel, so I am left wondering what would go through their heads just before they saw the flash. Would they wonder if there is indeed a perdition where they will be tormented for eternity? From Marra’s description, they’re probably not that kind of thinking fellows. I would guess they’d just figure– if they figure at all–that it’s no more than an “oh, shit” moment… black-out time, forever.

In one point in Marra’s book, Akhmed–one of our woebegone “heroes”–is confronted by Ramzan, a particularly loathsome man, once a friend but now a betrayer, one who turns in others to the Russians for pay and to keep himself alive at the expense of other hapless victims. As Ramzan tries to persuade Akhmed to tell him the whereabouts of the child the Russians want, he quotes selectively from Al-Haaqqa, the section in the Qur’an that predicts the day of judgment when the wicked will be brought forth and punished for their sins. In Marra’s powerful imagery he describes Ramzan as a man “who spoke Chechen as a dead language, selling its words as he had sold firearms and explosives, without knowing their real worth, without regard for who they might kill.”

Akhmed finishes the passage from Al-Haaqqa for him as he tells a speechless Ramzan: “On that day you will be revealed and nothing of you can be hidden.”

Let’s all hope on that day, if there is to be one, that we have kept the sixth commandment intact. Our humanity, as well as our so-called immortal souls, are at stake, at the very least.

Image: Chechnya/Чече́нская by LOreBoNoSi via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.

  1. Mike Copeland

    It is sublime when a book takes me to a time and place so outside my experience It expands my understanding of what it is to be human. Your beautiful essay leads me to believe Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomenoa is such a book. I have purchased the kindle edition in the hopes it will help me understand what is going on in Israel/Palestine and in Ukraine these days.

  2. Thank you, Mike. The slides that Lee selected could have easily illustrated this book. Hope it holds you the way it’s gripping me. Very best.

  3. It’s my guess that people who prey on their own kind don’t think ahead or about the effect of their actions on themselves or their victims. They’re on automatic — like the mosquito out for lunch. Their victims, too, are likely largely unaware. One-off events don’t register. We don’t remember our own deaths, much as we don’t remember our birth. However, if the latter was traumatic, it may well have left a trace of fear that we can’t explain.
    It really is better when the predators can sublimate their urges and satisfy them with money. Hoarding dollars is primitive, but it beats piling up body parts.

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