Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was so breathtaking that I felt sincere trepidation when his new collection of short stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno*, arrived in the mail.
I shouldn’t have.
These linked stories, though they don’t swell with the emotional buildup made possible by the length of the novel, are nonetheless beautifully constructed, achingly sad, grimly funny. If A Constellation of Vital Phenomena had me sobbing, The Tsar of Love and Techno made a lump rise in my throat more than once (and to be fair, the former’s depiction of torture made me ill, and this book made me only faintly queasy in comparison).
Again, Mr. Marra finds his subjects in violence-torn Chechnya, where a placid hillside depicted in a minor nineteenth-century painting is a touchstone that winks in and out of nearly a century of darkness in St. Petersburg (and its other names), Siberia, and Grozny.
The stories begin in 1937, when a prolific censor begins painting his brother into each work he “corrects,” and then they expand outward in time and space. We meet the beautiful granddaughter of an exiled ballerina, the bereft self-appointed curator of a Chechen art museum, two young brothers on the edge of a chemical-swollen manmade lake, a boy thinking about getting himself arrested so he won’t be drafted, a middle-aged woman desperate to connect with her daughter and make sense of a daunting half century of change.
The level of detail in the stories is exquisite, the settings unforgettable (a wolf-haunted forest of fake trees, a mine-strewn hillside, piles of rubble that used to be apartments) and the characterization unfolds from tale to tale with great skill. Each story could stand alone, but one or two later you’ll find a character is more nuanced than when you first read about him or her. Sometimes all it takes is a sentence: “she had long ago learned to ignore her largest moral failures by attending to the smallest social proprieties” (233).
It’s a testament to the brilliance of this book that Mr. Marra shows the sheer terror of Stalinism and the icy cruelty of Putin’s oligarchy and yet still finds a way to convey humor and even a little beauty (besides that in the writing, which is extensive), and the human, individual mystery that sends the same man almost mad with a longing for home, and then the implacable determination to return to war.
The Tsar of Love and Techno is a marvelous book. Highly recommended.
*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.