You know the old adage: “Never judge a book by its cover.” To that, I would add, “Never judge a book by the author’s photo”—at least not in the case of Anthony Marra. When he published his first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, four years ago, the photo on the jacket made him look like he was eighteen years old. How not to be jealous? Well, it turns out that he was older than that (he’s thirty at the moment) and the jacket photo—in spite of touches of grey hair—again makes him look young enough that most other writers who have never actually seen him are going to be jealous as hell. It doesn’t help that Marra is a genius and that the first novel and now his second book, The Tsar of Love and Techno, are brilliant.
Turns out that both books were written at the same time. As he was writing Constellation, he was writing the nine stories in the current book. Then—as he said at a recent reading of his work—he realized that they could be connected if he rewrote them, providing the semblance of a novel because of overlapping use of characters, incidents and, above all, settings. Marra also explained how he has come to know so much about Russia’s war in Chechnya. As an undergraduate, he studied in St. Petersburg, where he daily observed seventeen-year-old recruits for the Russian army and returned vets (often horribly maimed) from the on-going war that was gobbling up so many young Russian soldiers. He had the opportunity to talk to some of them. Clearly, their horrific stories shocked him. Later, as a writer, he returned to Russia and also visited Chechnya.
Moreover, Marra’s research has been exhaustive. In an acknowledgements section at the end of The Tsar of Love, he mentions such books as The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin’s Russia, by David King, and Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State, by David Satter. Re-writing history, distorting and censoring it are crucial elements of the current book, which Marra undertakes with remarkable pizzazz and humor. Above all, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a comic novel. You will no doubt call much of it black humor and/or absurdity, coping devices for dealing with destruction and horror. In “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” for example, the narrator is charged with the task of creating a brochure that will lure tourists to the city, named by the United Nations as “the most devastated city on earth.” It’s an impossible task, but the character sets out on his project with what one of the country’s ministers suggests might be a rebranding of “Chechnya as the Dubai of the Caucasus.” Examples of the “rebranding” become ludicrous, of course, but comic to the extreme.
Several stories also coalesce around a famous painting, once the property of the destroyed Grozny Museum of Regional Art. But before Marra describes that place, he relates the activities of Roman Osipovich Markin a “correction artist” during Stalin’s time, who worked in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. His job was to remove images of people who became political enemies. One of them was of his own brother, Vaska, but Roman got his revenge by inserting Vaska’s face in hundreds of other altered paintings. And one of those of a landscape, by a Chechen painter named Zakharov, was on display in the Grozy museum before it was damaged in the war. That painting will be sold to one of Russia’s most wealthy oligarchs after the pleading of his mistress, a ballerina who wants the painting because it is of the site of her former lover’s death in the Chechen war. It’s a fairly convoluted story, but the painting (and others) becomes the perfect metaphor for re-writing the past, denying recent history.
Oligarchs, correction artists and museum curators, young men who will become disabled veterans or do not return from the war at all—all are cleverly tied into an almost endless streak of witty remarks and one-liners that counterbalance the horror of Russia’s recent history. Others are simply clever one-liners, with one character, for example, responding to a question of whether he has read a book, “I haven’t read it…I don’t want the text to influence my interpretation.” In a later story, as a young man tries to explain the computer and the Internet to his father, he remarks, “It’s Google, not Gogol. You type what you’re searching for and hit enter.”
Several of the stories are set in Kirovsk, inside the Arctic Circle, a city so polluted from the near-by mines that the government has built a forest out of metal branches and plastic leaves to remind residents of what the environment was once like. There’s also a lake full of chemical waste, dubbed Mercury Lake, so polluted that the lives of all the residents are cut short. And, finally—because it plays such importance in the lives of several of the younger characters in the story—mention should be made of the Kirovsk Cosmonautics Museum, like all the other “museums” in the narrative, more a collection of miscellaneous artifacts than an actual museum, but a source of obsession for several of Marra’s engaging characters.
If all this sounds a bit of a mishmash, it isn’t, but, rather, an extremely clever exploration of recent times in Russia and Chechnya, after the end of the Cold War, when young lives, especially, were snuffed out by war, pollution, booze and cigarettes, and—worse—a fatalism of the people fully cognizant of their mortality. As a young man remarks in one of the stories, “This is Chechnya…. You don’t need seat belts.”
Anthony Marra: The Tsar of Love and Techno
Hogarth, 332 pp., $25.00