Published by Hogarth
Publication date: October 6th 2015
Genres: Cultural, Fiction, Historical, Short Stories
For art to be the chisel that breaks the marble inside us, the artist must first become the hammer.
The Tsar of Love and Techno begins in 1937 Leningrad with a nameless censor. A man whose artistic skill is such that his sole purpose is to erase people deemed to be enemies of the state from any and all paintings and photographs in which they appear. His talent is great but he sees what it is doing to the children of the USSR
They learn to censor before they learn to write. They were never taught to create what they now destroy, and have no appreciation of what, precisely, they sacrifice.
This elegiac thought is one that author Anthony Marra follows throughout this masterful collection of nine short stories. One author, one country, combined with multiple times, characters and sensibilities all moving as different colors to emerge, in the final story, in a landscape gorgeous in its hues and textures. That there is a painting in the stories, one modified and desired by a number of characters, and that this painting is a real one by a Russian artist from Chechnya only adds to the complexity of each story. The correction artist links to the son of a religious revolutionary links to a ballerina to a camp commandant to a grand-daughter to an oligarch to a mercenary to his brother…and does not stop there. Along the way and through the decades there is the painting, a photograph, a cassette tape and the memories, both collective and personal, that infuse each of these extraordinary ordinary characters.
The way in which Marra writes about the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia encapsulates the fatalistic humor of a people who have been led down so many overgrown paths that they no longer believe there is a way out. Instead, with a cynical acceptance they’ve settled into the surreal aspects of their lives. During the time of Brezhnev he describes robust young men entering civil service only to emerge years later
anemic and stooped, cured forever of the inclination to be civil or of service to anyone
Or a group of friends who, in spreading rumors, may have contributed to the death of another friend’s daughter
Our role in Lydia’s murder blemishes the otherwise sterling regard we have for ourselves.
And for Kolya, a man who appears in one way or another in almost each story—as a soldier who fights in the war against Chechnya, loses his fiancé to a wealthy man and then becomes a mercenary in order to send his younger brother to university he accepts his choices but
…he couldn’t shake the sense that he was the architect of a city made entirely of off-ramps, all leading away from him.
It is safe to say that by the time I finished The Tsar of Love and Techno I had read the book twice because Marra’s words/sentences/phrases/paragraphs are all so magical I needed to read and repeat. That one person could blend such an ambrosia of gallows humor, self-deprecation, satire, and pathos into each of these stories would be beyond my imagining if I had not read it. I know as reviewers there are a finite amount of words we can use and repetition is inevitable, but I’m relatively certain I’ve not used this one before. Brilliant. It is the only word that fits a work that so perfectly reflects the tone of its time and place. The Tsar of Love and Techno is brilliant. The End.