by Rana Asfour
In what one can only be described as a tour de force collection of short stories, Anthony Marra manages to bring forth an array of the most dazzling and memorable pieces of work that in their entirety present the reader with a span of eighty years of Russian history dating from 1937 up until 2013 and the break down of the USSR.
‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ is in actuality a loose novel: once the stories are read in succession, the characters as well as objects (a fictional 19th century painting by Isaak Brodsky, a mix tape) and settings (Leningrad, a herb garden, a Siberian labor camp, Grozny, Kirovsk and Chechnya) fall in together as pieces of a puzzle that threaded together reveal a tapestry about family, sacrifice, the legacy of war and the redemptive power of art.
The book opens with ‘The Leopard’, the story of Roman Markin, a party member working in propaganda and the last of the Leningrad correction artists who attended the Imperial Academy of Arts before the revolution. His job, in addition to airbrushing Stalin to look puffy cheeked and robust in photos, involves finding ‘offending images in books, old newspapers, pamphlets, in paintings or as loose photographs, sitting in portrait or standing in crowds. Most could be ripped, but some censored images needed to remain as a cautionary tale. For these, obliteration by India ink was the answer. A gentle tip of the jar, a few squeezes of the eyedropper, and the disgraced face drowned beneath a glinting black pool’.
When his brother is found ‘guilty of religious radicalism by an impartial and just tribunal’ and ‘received the only sentence suitable for a madman who poisoned others with the delusion that heaven awaits us’ Markin is forced to do unto his brother’s photographs what he has done to those before him. Although he had been the one to shop him, the defacing of his brother is that what finally breaks him. In a bid for redemption he rebels in the only way he is capable of under the circumstances: for every face he obliterates in a painting, he draws in the face of his brother somewhere in the background. He does that until he himself is incarcerated and charged with treason albeit for a completely different offense.
And so the stories continue: a child who informs the authorities on her mother, a granddaughter of a disgraced ballerina who becomes an actress and marries the 14th richest man in Russia yet still pines for her first boyfriend; A soldier who fights in Chechnya and carries an un-listened to mix tape in his pocket compiled and given to him by his brother. There is the story of a former museum director and his blind curator, and there’s also a climactic space journey (year unknown).
From the fantastic to the fantastical and in between, Marra’s confident style of writing is consistent, and captivating throughout. It feels like magical realism but it isn’t. The only magic spells here are cast by Marra in the form of perfect sentence construction, memorable characters, and vivid descriptions of setting and landscape. There is wonderment and a sense of satisfaction and achievement when the reader reconnects with familiar characters that re-appear in different stories and finally makes the vital connections that complete the final piece of the puzzles strewn across the book. It may seem like hard work but it is effort well worth it in the end.
One would be correct to assume that although the recurrent theme in all of the stories is connected to time of war or its aftermath, it becomes important to point out here the pure genius of the writer who manages to maintain hope and humor throughout. There is significant emphasis on showing that there will always be two sides to any coin and that the concepts of good and bad are truly arbitrary terms.
That said, the stories contain witty, painfully funny passages that far from eclipsing or downplaying the dismal circumstances in which most of the characters are steeped, simply serve to show that in these stories moments of joy follow moments of sorrow and the other way around, as does the wheel of life. But it also means that you will laugh even when it feels wrong to do so.
Anthony Marra is the New York Times-bestselling author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, longlisted for the American National Book Award and winner of the American National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction, and the Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Check out his website HERE.
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