Published by Crown/Archetype on October 6th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Short Stories (single author), Literary, War & Military
History is the error we are forever correcting. (The Leopard)
I can’t read Anthony Marra without highlighting half the book! The Tsar of Love and Techno consists of nine interconnected short stories spanning over 75 years in Chechnya and Russia. It addresses the futility of trying to erase people and events, human adaptability, the absurdity of life and war, and the smallness of our lives in relation to the enormity of the universe.
It takes nothing less than the whole might of the state to erase a person, but only the error of one individual–if that is what memory is now called–to preserve her. (The Leopard)
Anthony Marra is such an efficient writer. He distills so much wisdom into brief sentences and his prose is beautiful without being flowery. The stories are primarily set in a landmine-filled pasture in Chechnya, a pasture that was also the subject of an obscure nineteenth-century painting, and Kirovsk, Russia, where many of the characters grew up. Kirovsk is a nickel mining town described as a “poisoned post-apocalyptic hellscape,” with an artificial forest designed to “make people forget that [they’re] living where humans don’t belong.” But even in the bleakest of settings, Marra manages to inject humanity and humor. His characters are complex and they often betray their loved ones, but they are doing the best they can to survive.
We’ve given them all we can, but our greatest gift has been to imprint upon them our own ordinariness. They may begrudge us, may think us unambitious and narrow-minded, but someday they will realize that what makes them unremarkable is what keeps them alive. (Granddaughters)
The character’s fates are often spoiled in the earlier stories, so the mystery is how they reached their fate. Enough background is given that many of the stories could be read outside of the novel, but it is a much richer experience to read them all together. Each story has its own message, but there are common threads weaving them all together. The following spoiler-tagged text is a list of the connections shared between the stories and a partial summary of the whole story within the individual stories:View Spoiler »
The Leopard: (1937) State censor in Leningrad ordered to add party boss to “pastoral by the nineteenth-century Chechen painter Pyotr Zakharov.” Painting sent to Grozny. In another part of the story, the state censor is unable to complete the task of removing a ballerina from a photo and he leaves a trace of her hand.
Granddaughters: (1937-2013) Galina, granddaughter of the aforementioned ballerina, is the star of this story. She meets her first love Kolya, who is later sent to mandatory military service in Chechnya. Lydia, a friend of hers and the daughter of Vera, is murdered by Kolya when he returns home.
The Grozny Tourist Bureau: (2003) Ruslan wrote his dissertation on the nineteenth-century pastoral landscapes. He is in possession of the Zakharov painting, which he saved from the museum after it had been damaged by bombing. Girlfriend Nadya, a restoration artist, wrote her dissertation on state censor in The Leopard and removed the party boss from the Zakharov painting. Ruslan lived on Zakharov’s pasture until his wife and child died. Ruslan fixes damage to painting and adds wife and child to painting. Galina discovers that Kolya died on Zakharov’s pasture and is given an old childhood photo of Kolya with his mom and brother. She forcibly purchases the painting from Ruslan.
A Prisoner of the Caucasus: (2000) Kolya is held captive in pit on Zakharov’s pasture during his second deployment. The man who lives there now is Ruslan’s former father-in-law. He has a photograph of the Zakharov painting and orders Kolya and his fellow captive soldier to restore property to its original condition. Kolya’s mixtape (“the only question he had to which he could ever hope to receive an answer.”) and the photo of Kolya with his mom and brother appear in this story.
The Tsar of Love and Techno: (2010/1990s) Galina gives the family picture and Zakharov painting to Kolya’s brother Alexei. The story behind Kolya’s mixtape and family picture is revealed. Alexei visits Zakharov pasture and sees two figures, just like in the painting.
Wolf of White Forest: (1999) Full story of Vera, Lydia and Kolya, first mentioned in Granddaughters: Mixtape in Kolya’s pocket, family picture on his bookshelf.
Palace of the People: (2001) Told by Sergei, son of Vladimir. A character has connection with The Leopard.
A Temporary Exhibition: (2011-2013) Nadya (from The Grozny Tourist Bureau) is hosting an exhibition of state censor’s work. Characters from Palace of the People appear in this story and there is a connection with the end of The Tsar of Love and Techno.
The End: (Unknown) The final seconds following the end of A Prisoner of the Caucasus
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The future is the lie with which we justify the brutality of the present.(The Leopard)
My favorite stories were The Leopard, The Grozny Tourist Bureau, and Wolf of White Forest.
• The Leopard, set in 1937, is about a state censor who airbrushes people out of existence. His brother was killed for political reasons. Out of guilt, he begins to paint his brother’s face over the faces he is erasing.
• In The Grozny Tourist Bureau, a man becomes the head of the Grozny tourism department and humorously describes the challenges of making a city destroyed by war appear palatable to foreign tourists. I’m sure my fellow Houstonians can appreciate this line: “I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureau of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston.”
• Wolf of White Forest centers around an elderly woman who is still haunted by her accidental denunciation of her mother in 1941. The decades pass and she is forced to adapt to new traditions. As the old guard falls, a new guard enters. Vera’s money-making activities inadvertently result in the further disintegration of her family, in an incident that mirrors her childhood indiscretion.
No one was innocent, no one was unconnected, no one was not complicit. The strongest, most damning adjectives she’d reserve for her own silences, if she could only now raise her voice. (Wolf of White Forest)
My least favorite story was the longest of the bunch, The Tsar of Love and Techno. A young man gets confirmation that his brother is dead and looks back on their childhood in the toxic environment of Kirovsk. It took me a few days to get through it. It jumps between the present-day and the featured character’s childhood memories. I preferred the childhood part so much that I kept getting irritated at the constant interruption. I think I would have liked it more if the memories were bookended by the present. I also don’t think it stands on its own as well as some of the others.
You remain the hero of your own story even when you become the villian of someone else’s. (The Leopard)
I had a hard time seeing how it was going to all tie together, but Marra did not disappoint! The last two stories A Temporary Exhibition and The End are also better in the context of the whole book, but they give the book a satisfying conclusion that brought tears to my eyes and a sad smile to my face. The writing style of The End was distinctive from the other stories, very poetic with cosmic imagery.
“All these people who opened their purses on the metro, when they see a legless vet, they feel ashamed and maybe a little pity. But when they see me crawling across the metro car, they see someone defiant, silent, not begging for anything, and they feel pride. They’re paying me for the privilege of feeling proud when they should feel disgraced.” (Palace of the People)
One of the hard things about reading interconnected short stories is that upon the first reading my brain gets overloaded trying to keep track of the whole story, while also trying to enjoy the individual story. It would definitely reward a reread. While I rated this book four stars on Goodreads, I almost talked myself into five stars by the end of writing this review!
If you enjoy Marra’s work, I would recommend The Ukrainian and Russian Notebook, a graphic nonfiction by Igort (working on the review now). It is much more bleak, but it is powerful to read the real-life accounts of people who live in the region. For more absurdity in terrible situations, you might also want to try Kurt Vonnegut, especially Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. For more books centered around paintings, The Improbability of Love is a lighter novel that is set in the art world.
Quote that all book lovers can appreciate:
During my early days in the department, I wasn’t entrusted with such delicate assignments. For my first year, I combed the shelves of libraries with the most recently expanded edition of Summary List of Books Excluded from Libraries and the Book Trade Network, searching for images of newly disgraced officials. This should be a librarian’s job, of course, but you can’t trust people who read that much.