Published by Penguin Random House ISBN 978-0-7704-3643-8
Hardcover, $25, 352 pages
Three years ago I read Anthony Marra's debut novel about people trapped in the Chechen war, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I could not stop talking about it and recommended to anyone who would listen (and even those who wouldn't). I was thrilled when the critical accolades came in for Marra; he even won a National Book Critics' Circle Award. It is a brilliant book.
Marra's second book is a collection of linked short stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno, set in the USSR. This collection covers a wider range of years and characters, and it is even more brilliant because of that.
Marra starts off strong with The Leopard, a story set in 1937 that drops the reader into an nearly improbable situation, yet one that happened everyday in the Soviet Union. Roman Markin works in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. His job is to erase people who have been determined by the government to be traitors.
He literally erases them- painting over them in photos and paintings. Families are ordered to turn over any evidence that a loved one ever existed to be eliminated. Roman visits his sister-in-law to collect photos of his brother Vaska, her husband who was executed for his religious practices, and to warn her of the dangers of disobeying the government.
Roman also instructs his sister-in-law to take photographs of her son every year in case she is arrested and he is placed in an orphanage. This will make it easier to find him if she is ever released. That fact just floored me.
Roman continues his work daily erasing people from existence. But he began adding something too- he put his dead brother into every painting he censored. He put images of Vaska as a young boy, a teen, an adult, an older man. Every single image he worked on had Vaska in it to atone for Roman's guilt over his brother.
Others people we meet in the collection of stories include Galina, the beautiful granddaughter of a famous ballerina, who deserted her first love to become the wife of a wealthy oil oligarch. We read of Kolya, her first love who became a soldier and drug dealer, and his brother Alexei who makes a mixtape for his brother to take into war with him.
A painting by a famous Russian artist of a pasture ties the stories together. Roman puts his brother into it, and Kolya ends up spending too much time in the actual pasture under unfortunate circumstances. Many of the characters in the story have a connection to this painting and it is a lifeline to some.
The writing in The Tsar of Love and Techno just stuns. Writing of how people turned their neighbors in to police for any suspected infraction, he says " Our city was small and whispers easily became verdict." That sentence conveys everything about life then and there in nine words.
Other examples are :
"The obvious is only obvious when it happens to someone else."
"I said nothing, and as is often the case with men who possess more power than wisdom, he took my silence for affirmation."
"Wealth announces itself with what's easy to break and impossible to clean." (Talking about Galina's apartment filled with white carpets and expensive chairs and art.)
"To say he felt guilty would ascribe to ethical borders that were lines on a map of a country that no longer existed."
"Uncertainty recalibrated the moral compass to point toward survival."It took me a week to read The Tsar of Love and Techno because I simply didn't want it to ever end. I would read a story, and then take time to appreciate the writing, the complexity of the story, and what life was like for these people under the Soviet regime. What it took to survive, the choices people were forced to make when no good choice existed, just crushed me.
This is another masterpiece from Marra, one that proves that he is a force to be reckoned with in literature for a long time. I cannot do his book justice in this review, suffice it to say that The Tsar of Love and Techno knocked me out and is the best book I have read this year, possibly in two years. I give it my highest recommendation.
My review of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is here.
I met Anthony Marra at BEA last year and fangirled to him about A Constellation of Vital Phenemona. He was very gracious but he probably thought I was a little crazy.
|Anthony Marra signing book sat BEA 2015|