The Tsar of Love and Techno review: Total totalitarian recall
An American’s interlocking stories set in hardened Russia grip from the get-go
Anthony Marra: a writer for whom essential truths are found in detail. Photograph: Michael Hurcomb/Corbis/Getty
The Tsar of Love and Techno
Vladimir Nabokov, an exile for much of his life, wrote that memory is the only true real estate. Cited by one of the characters in Anthony Marra’s striking new collection, Nabokov’s line can in many ways be read as the book’s manifesto.
Like Nabokov, Marra is a writer for whom essential truths are found in detail. Large things are diminished – war, labour camps, assassinations, the planting of 500,000 landmines, “roughly one for every two Chechen” – and particulars emerge from the background as characters piece together their fragmented lives.
The nine interlocking stories grip from the off with their dry tone and meticulously realised worlds of totalitarian life and its aftermath. Characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the collection, graceful as a troupe of dancers in the author’s assured hands. Spanning the era of the second World War to the present day – with the final surreal story imagining a time in the future – Marra’s Russia is a hardened landscape where personal freedoms are few.
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“I am an artist first, a censor second,” says Roman Markin, the narrator of the opening story, The Leopard, set in Leningrad in 1937. A failed portrait artist who works for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation, Roman has shopped his brother Vaska to the authorities in order to save himself.
Charged with rewriting history, he paints Stalin and other party members into scenes while erasing political enemies. The censor ultimately finds a way for a muted rebellion by painting the image of his dead brother into the background of his work.
Marra himself writes from the shadows, with the personalities of characters blurring into focus. Stories are linked by activities and objects – dancing, leopard-print bikinis, a Zakharov pastoral landscape that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Nothing is as it seems.
Marra is masterful at giving just enough detail to hook the reader. A side character in Granddaughters is briefly mentioned: “Surely you remember Vera, who as a child denounced her own mother to the NKVD?” Meanwhile, a mesmerising first-person-plural voice tells the story of a beautiful village girl, Galina, who sets herself apart from the pack in a harsh mining town.
The collective voice charting Galina’s rise and subsequent fall is Schadenfreude personified: “We laughed with the spite of those without legacies to honour.”
Vera’s terrifying story, Wolf of White Forests, returns later: murdered mothers, murdered daughters and the almost accidental choices that set such chains in motion.
This is followed by three contemporary tales set in St Petersburg, which bring a satisfying close to the collection. In Palace of the People, Sergei gets out of enlisting by trying to murder a cripple, before settling for a knee-capping himself. A Temporary Exhibition reintroduces two bureaucrats from an art museum in Grozny who get a surprisingly happy ending after a devastating missile attack.
Another section brings Sergei’s father, Vladimir, to the fore with his hilariously anachronistic views on modern society. That we have previously met all these characters or their ancestors in some way shows the level of care in the collection’s construction.
Born in Washington, DC, Marra is a talent, arming readers with foreknowledge to add texture and suspense. His 2013 debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. Marra taught himself Russian and was one of the first foreign tourists to visit the postwar republic of Chechnya.
In addition to his own experiences, a lengthy bibliography demonstrates the research that went into the The Tsar of Love and Techno. His stories have subtle nods to the Russian greats (Chekhov’s gun, the lady with the lapdog) and more overt echoes of the writing of Kafka and Orwell in the tales of totalitarian living.
Whispered protests from characters such as Markin the censor are even quieter in other cases. Kolya, Galina’s boyfriend, remembers the “revolution” of a Sunday swim with his younger brother in their childhood world of assassinations and war.
At the centre of the collection are A Prisoner of the Caucasus, set in the Chechen Highlands in 2000, and the titular story, set in Kirovsk in the 1990s and St Petersburg in 2010. Both focus on the tragedy of Kolya’s life, which sees him mutate from first love to a reluctant soldier to a mercenary for drug dealers, before living out his days, still only in his mid-20s, as a prisoner betrayed by his own troops.
If memory is the only true real estate, Marra has built an intricate world through character histories: “Galina’s father knew her best hope for prosperity would come from dulling all that made her exceptional.”
Despite such repeated warnings of the dangers of individualism, Marra lets his singular voices shine.