Having raved about Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a couple of years ago, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on his latest offering. The Tsar of Love and Techno is somewhat similar to its predecessor in its focus: life during and after Soviet rule. But where Marra had a whole novel to convey the crushing weight of life under Soviet rule with Phenomena, accomplishing this same task a second time with short stories as his vehicle of delivery was probably a lot trickier.
The Tsar of Love and Techno is a book of connected short stories. It’s a mixtape of sorts, an appropriate concept considering the symbolic significance an actual mixtape plays in several of the stories. The book begins in the 1930s with a Soviet censor, a genius in his own right, whose job it is to “correct” photographs, painting over offending parties that have been disappeared by the government and erasing them out of existence. For reasons he can’t explain, he’s drawn to the photograph of a ballerina whose identity he does not know. He leaves a small part of her visible on the photograph, a move that could jeopardize his life.
From there, each story jumps back and forth in time and is told by a cast of different narrators. Each story has at a connection to one of the stories that came before it, though those connections aren’t always immediately clear. Put together, they’re a cacophony of love, loss, and struggle. One of the stories is told by a group of women in a mining town whose grandparents were sent there as gulag prisoners. Several of the stories are told by men who are either soldiers, or who are trying to do anything to avoid being conscripted into the brutal war. They tell of crushed dreams and violent retribution. They tell of unbreakable family bonds.
And the writing! I marked over a dozen passages and descriptions in this book; it’s like the man cannot write a bad sentence. These were some of my favorite shorter quotes:
We fell in and out of love with fevered frequency. We constantly became people we would later regret having been.
“You’re not scared, are you?” The rasped question carried the ghosts of ten thousand cigarettes.
Her generation had journeyed through hell so we could grow up in purgatory.
Turning I would to I did is the grammar of growing up.
It’s just a really lovely, complex (if depressing) book that you’ll want to take your time with. Marra is an exceptionally gifted writer, and I remain in awe of how deftly he pulled these stories off.
The Tsar of Love and Techno was released in October 2015 by Hogarth, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group.