The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and Techno

In May 2013, sandwiched amid anticipated heavyweights like New Yorker “20 Under 40” Philip Meyer’s The Son, best-selling Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and Karen Joy Fowler’s Man Booker-shortlisted We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a first novel by a relative newcomer (albeit an Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA graduate and a Wallace Stegner Fellow) appeared on the scene. By the time the year was over, the book — Anthony Marra’s impressive A Constellation of Vital Phenomena — had earned a spot on more than a dozen “best of the year” lists, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and later won the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize in 2014.

Not bad for a 28-year-old newbie — especially when he’s poised to do it again two years later.

Like his deeply affecting debut, which took place mostly in beleaguered Chechnya after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marra sets his latest endeavor — The Tsar of Love and Techno — in a bruised and oppressive Russia. Scattered throughout nine tightly interconnected vignettes that read more like a novel than a collection of short stories, a complicated web of careworn lives unspools in Siberia, Chechnya and St. Petersburg, from 1937 to the present.

There’s Roman Markin of the opening story, the failed painter turned stooge for the Stalin era’s Soviet Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation who dutifully airbrushes the faces of dissidents, counterrevolutionaries and other “enemies of the people” out of historical artwork and photographs. Dutifully, that is, until he’s arrested for being in cahoots with a Polish spy ring led by a prima ballerina. The fact that Roman is innocent of that particular crime is beside the point; as Marra so deftly illustrates throughout these stories, “You remain the hero of your own story even when you become the villain of someone else’s.”

In the second chapter we meet Galina, the granddaughter of the disappeared dancer, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To the delight and envy of her nattering girlfriends in their rural nickel-mining hometown who “measure economic prosperity by the spread of rashes on [their] exposed skin,” Galina brings fame to polluted, apocalyptic-looking Kirovsk when she wins the first Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant in a coup that seemingly restores her grandmother’s thwarted legacy.

And then there’s Kolya, Galina’s high school sweetheart, who heads off to war with her name on his tongue, only to find upon his first return that she has aborted their unborn baby, become a celebrated film star despite her lack of talent, and wears an engagement ring given to her by the 14th richest oligarch in Russia. Kolya’s evolution from smitten boy to dejected mope to angry drug-dealing thug to humbled soldier who finds peace while enslaved on a Chechnyan farm is among the most nuanced — and heartbreaking — storytelling in the book.

In both of his books, Marra perpetuates the Russian novelist’s tradition by employing an unwieldy cast of characters to act out the whims of his imagination. In fact, there are many in Love and Techno — Kolya’s adrift and sentimental younger brother or Museum of Regional Art curator Ruslan Dukorov and his art historian second wife, for example — who haven’t been discussed here.

But this time around, Marra does a better job in keeping his characters’ narratives focused by linking each protagonist to an object that appears in every story: a 19th century painting of a dacha nestled deep in the Chechnyan countryside with two airbrushed figures on a hill. The genius part is we don’t fully understand the artwork’s far-reaching significance — nor each character’s connection to it or each other — until the book’s final pages.

Aside from the pretzeled plot, made all the more enjoyable thanks to Marra’s knack for knowing when to inject otherwise grim scenes with a touch of irony for much-needed comic relief (i.e. after Ruslan’s museum is firebombed during the first Chechnyan war and the city lies in ruins, Grozny’s Interior Minister enlists his help in rebranding Chechnya as “the Dubai of the Caucasus”), what makes this (dare I say) masterpiece so stunning is Marra’s clear love for his subject and insistence on infusing beauty into even the darkest places.

Take Lake Mercury — Kirovsk’s manmade lake of industrial runoff where beleaguered babushkas stage their own small revolt by swimming in its toxic waters. (“We should all be so lucky to get from life a sunny-day swim in chemical waste.”) Or the scene following young Kolya’s mother’s death from lung cancer when Kolya’s grief-stricken father pitches an unwashed dish out the window rather than take on his wife’s work. When Kolya and his brother gleefully join in, the effect is tragic, but also unexpectedly amusing — and so poignant. It’s these delicate moments of contrast that make the book truly sing. Because what is life made of, if not that?

A writer’s sophomore effort is usually heavily scrutinized. More often than not, the slightly too ambitious second novel or unevenly curated collection of short stories pales in comparison to its acclaimed predecessor. Not so with Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno. It’s nothing short of extraordinary.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (October 16, 2015)

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