Although they’re set in contemporary Argentina, many of the short stories in Mariana Enríquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire have an almost primal feel. A current of macabre superstition and urban legend threads the collection together, and nearly every story has some kind of undefinable darkness looming over its protagonists. The terror that transpired during Argentina’s relatively recent dictatorship — thousands were murdered in the 1970s and early 1980s — also haunts the pages. These are horror stories feel like they could be real.
Enríquez is very talented when it comes to creating atmospheric tension. Most of the stories take a surreal turn, but they all start out with recognizable contemporary scenarios: poverty, drug abuse, social inequality, childhood curiosity, obnoxious boyfriends. It isn’t until the reader is drawn into the relatable, reality-based settings that weird things start happening.
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.
Set in war-torn Chechnya, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena begins with terror. Russian soldiers burst into a house and abduct a man in the middle of the night, burning down his house and taking him somewhere no one ever returns from. His neighbor and longtime friend, Akhmed, watches helplessly until they leave, then races over to save what the soldiers left without: hiding in the snowy forest behind the house is his friend’s eight-year-old daughter, Havaa. Knowing that the soldiers will surely come back for her, Akhmed takes it upon himself to keep the girl safe.
Akhmed inadvertently makes a choice that will change everyone’s lives. His reasoning is initially unclear, but he decides that Havaa will be safe at the hospital in a nearby city. He knows of a skilled female surgeon there — unheard of in their culture — and he’s sure that if he can just get Havaa there, she’ll be safe. The reality of the situation is quite different. He does indeed encounter that female surgeon, Sonja, but she’s cold and arrogant. She’s the only doctor in the entire hospital; aside from her assistant and the security guard, everyone else fled years ago. The last thing she needs is a child running around. Still, by offering to help at the hospital, Akhmed manages to get her to agree.
Though the book technically only spans five days, it actually jumps back and forth from 1994 – 2004. Marra has created a complex web of relationships that extends far beyond their current situation; events that happened years ago set off numerous chain reactions that are finally manifesting themselves all these years later. Even secondary characters who have never met are somehow connected: Sonja’s beautiful and traumatized younger sister, Natasha; Ramzan, the village informant whom everyone shuns; Ramzan’s lonely father, Khassan, who must also bear the stigma of his son’s actions; and Dokka, Havaa’s father. So much is shrouded by loss, violence, and mystery.