The prose in The Tsar of Love and Techno made me fall in love with Anthony Marra. While reading I would be struck by a phrase or a description that kept me turning back to read it again and savor it. For example, from the second story, Granddaughters, this description of a young man, “He was forever leaning, slanting, sidling, his existence italicized down to his crooked hat.”
Of course, the best prose is only in service to the story and here is where Anthony Marra truly excels, telling heart-breaking and authentic stories that seem almost mythic in their power. The first story is The Leopard, narrated by a corrections artist, an artist whose work is to paint and airbrush away the existence of the many people who have been denounced, exiled and executed. As this is in Stalin’s Russia, he is a busy man. Forced to paint out his brother, he then begins to paint him into other photos and paintings, multiplying his memory. It’s a story out of Kafka, grotesque, painful and consequential.
The second story, Granddaughters is narrated by the women descended from Siberian exiles, the people of those Arctic mining towns where life is brutal and shortened by the dust and smoke of mining and smelting and tells us about Galina, the granddaughter of the prima ballerina whom the censor of the first story had been asked to paint out of a photo. The lesson of survival in Russia seems to be to conform, blend in and avoid notice. As the granddaughters explained about their children, “our greatest gift was to imprint upon them our own ordinariness. They may begrudge us, may think us unambitious and narrow-minded, but someday they will realize that what make them unremarkable is what keeps them alive.”
All seven stories are linked to the others, making this less a collection of short stories and more a novel told in installments. It succeeds is making those connections feel organic and logical, not some out of character manipulation by the author. Every story can stand alone; they are all powerful, deeply moving and rich in the subtle magic of creating a time, a place, and the events that draw us into while quickly, but fully, realizing characters of depth and humanity. Brought together into a whole, the work is devastating, with powerful stories that will wring your heart.
For all the pain and heartbreak, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a remarkably funny book. It’s a grim sort of gallows humor at times, but perhaps humor is the only way to stay sane when struggling to make a life in Soviet and post-Soviet Siberia and Chechnya. There is a strong predilection for taking note of the absurd such as conservation efforts of a signature-gathering environmentalist who wants the Mayor to turn the White Forest into a nature preserve. The White Forest is made of metal trees with plastic leaves to obscure the chemical wasteland in which these miners and smelters and their descendants live. In Chechnya, an art museum director becomes the Tourism Director and is tasked with making Grozny, the war-devastated city attractive. Anyone familiar with real estate listings would admire his ingenuity at describing disaster.
It is nearly impossible to describe how wonderful The Tsar of Love and Techno is. If I tried to quote even a representative sample of the fabulous turns of phrase, the powerful metaphors, the evocative descriptions, this review would be pages long. The cast of characters is long, rich and fully realized and the arc of the story covers decades and generations. To accomplish this, Marra has made an intense, highly concentrated book that I know I will want to read again and again. A book this rich in texture begs to be read multiple times. It should become a treasured classic.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.