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The Tsar of Love and Techno
By Anthony Marra
Hogarth / ISBN: 978-0-7704-3643-8
Reviewed by Nora Rawn
Following up on 2014's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra has returned to the scene with a highly satisfying collection of linked stories. Revisiting the scene of the Chechen War that was the center of his debut novel, Marra has expanded the scope of his narrative to reach back to the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. He traces the path of a Russian censor, trained as a painter, who fails to intervene in the detention of his only brother and, as penance, paints his face into the background of paintings and photographs being modified to remove evidence of enemies of the state. Through the lens of his work, the lives of others intertwine and connect, from a ballerina who is air-brushed from a photograph and sent to Siberia, to the exploits of her granddaughter's marriage with an oligarch and long-lost childhood sweetheart, a soldier in Chechnya, to the soldier's brother and his quest to see the site where his brother was killed--conveniently, the same site once portrayed in a 19th century landscape painting modified by the official censor, whose work has been studied by another man who also lost family on the spot, and who meets the ballerina's granddaughter and her oligarch husband on a trip they take through Chechnya...connections on connections unfurling into an interconnected tapestry of surprising breadth.
Initially, these strands appear to be largely separate, and the publisher's description of the book as a collection of stories seems apt. As the story progresses, however, filaments linking one character with another arc between the chapters, even as the scale of the work achieves a bold span covering over eight decades of Soviet Union and Russian history. The task of capturing the repressive Stalinist era as well as the post-Berlin wall dissolution of the state, with substantial digressions in both Siberia and Chechnya, would seem an overly ambitious one for an American author whose interest in the region, while long-standing, is nonetheless that of an outsider. Yet Marra's passion for the history of the area and, above all, his ever-present compassion for his characters as they navigate the limitations of their world creates a moving and convincing tale. His soldier, Kolya, is no mere aggressor; he is a person with no home to return to, doing his best to find peace. Kolya's once-girlfriend turned movie star and wealthy wife, Galina, is not a cold-hearted gold-digger; she is a woman without options; while Roman, the censor whose cowardice doomed his brother, makes amends in the only way he knows how.
Marra's great gift, besides his ability to imagine tangled lives half a world away from our own, is his refusal to typecast any of his characters, his understanding that each personality has two sides: the outer face seen by the world and its softer underbelly. Without glossing over the hardships in the world he depicts, with its exile and war and poverty and hard choices, his forgiveness for his character's mistakes keeps his work uplifting despite its content. Readers with little patience for stringing together a series of connections between interlocking narratives set in different times and places may find their attention strained, but those with an interest in reading a new voice and exploring a foreign terrain will be highly rewarded by embarking on this carefully woven tale.
Out of 10: 9.0