Novels can take a reader to foreign places in a way that travel guides cannot match. Those places that make news headlines because of terrible events – bombings, work camps, ceaseless warfare. One of these books, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature this year. Set in North Korea, the main character is Jun Do, a name chosen by himself as a boy. Like the English transliteration of his name, Jun Do remains mysteriously unidentifiable in his own story, telling specific stories involving himself that grow increasingly irrational. But this is part of the novel’s over-arching depiction of life in North Korea, where everyone is defined by relationship to Kim Jong Il and his wacky, murderous regime. It is a terrible story. Seemingly out of control, spinning outlandish plot lines that place characters in horrible, sadistic settings with the threat of death driving everyone mad, the story is both a madman’s hallucinations and the pure truth of life in North Korea.
Similarly, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, is set in Chechnya. I’ve heard of Chechnya, or rather terrorists associated with Chechnya, but never really considered it beyond that. This novel plunks the reader into the misery of ordinary life in Chechnya between 1994 – 2004, a period of war and deprivation. The Chechen rebels, now the Federal Government, retain the bloodthirsty terrorist tactics that got them in power. Once the powerful Soviet government is gone, connections to essential supplies were broken. Thus, in Constellation, Sonja, the sole doctor left in Hospital 6, is forced to deal with the black market to get medicine and bandages. It’s dangerous to ally oneself with any side, but more dangerous to refuse to cooperate. The story begins when the Feds come for Dokka, a man named as a conspirator against the government. After Dokka is taken, his house is set aflame. Dokka has a young daughter, Havaa, who is rescued by a neighbor called Akhmed, and brought to Sonja at Hospital 6. This, of course, is but a singular thread of the story. Readers learn how each person bargains to stay alive, under the constant risk of mutilation or imprisonment, in the midst of cruel games of blackmail and betrayal.
Chechnya, like Afghanistan, is geographically located in an area that has long served as tromping grounds for invading armies and foreign occupation. They are countries fed by a series of conquerors, then left without an economic infrastructure when they manage to “win” independence. Another book, this one a memoir, introduces readers to a family shattered by Afghanistan’s long succession of wars. A Fort of Nine Towers, by Qais Akbar Omar, is Omar’s recollections of life in a country that imploded when freed from Soviet rule. Fighting between factions competing to fill the power gap tore the country apart, destroying neighborhoods, transforming the streets into war zones. The Omar family traveled throughout Afghanistan, trying to find a way out, but the fighting was rapidly closing their homeland down. Once the Taliban took over, the riotous fighting gave way to the terrifying implementation of religious extremism. Although Omar’s story is focused on his large and affectionate family, it also tells the story of a battered nation.
No stories tell the whole story. What is truth in one person’s experience is sometimes unrecognizable in another point of view. It would be false to think that reading one book gives a complete picture, but putting human stories in such dehumanizing settings does help readers understand, if not empathize, with the ordinary people betrayed by their own country.