08 January 2016
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich character portraits and a sense of history reverberating into the present, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a captivating work from one of our greatest new talents.
I haven't yet read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (see: I have a lot of unread books on my Nook because of ebook sales) so I'm making my introduction to full-length Anthony Marra work with his new collection of interlocking short stories set in the Soviet Union/Russia and spanning from the era of Stalin to the 2010s of Putin, The Tsar of Love and Techno. Each chapter's narrator links in some way to the next chapter's narrator but the tie for all these stories is a Soviet art "restoration" expert who is tasked with erasing dissidents from photographs and paintings and keeping Stalin's photographic appearance youthful. As Roman alters history he paints-in images of his brother Vaska, imagined images ranging in age from a young child to an old man, because Vaska was executed for remaining faithful to the Orthodox church.
These stories nest and curl around one another in an intricate tangle. Roman becomes obsessed with the image of a disgraced ballerina - one he is meant to "erase" - which leads to his downfall. In the next story, the life of the ballerina and her subsequent family in a Siberian labor camp is narrated by a Greek chorus comprised of the women descended from the ballerina's fellow labor-camp inmates. The next story moves to Grozny, in the immediate aftermath of the war in Chechnya, where an art curator cleverly creates a tourism board and art museum out of nothing to finance the reconstructive surgery of a dear friend injured in a bombing when an oligarch, with the ballerina's granddaughter on his arm, comes to town. And so on - nine chapters fill in the details of men and women living out uncertain lives of heartbreaking reality. The Tsar of Love and Techno is a wonderful puzzle box of a novel. The only, only possible mis-step was the very last chapter which changed style entirely to near-fantasy whereas most of the chapters clung to realism with only a tiny hint of magical realism. It didn't add much to the content of the novel, except to fill in the tracks on a mysterious mix tape and I find that I would have rather continued to guess at its contents.
A definite recommend if you're looking for a beautiful but wrenching book.
Dear FTC: I received a DRC of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.
PS: If you want a taste of Marra's writing, the seventh chapter, "The Palace of the People" was included in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. I had been thinking I had read that story before then pegged it when the two characters got on the subway.