The Tsar of Love and Techno – A Spellbinding Fiction about the Dissidents and Disgraced
Albert Camus said, ‘Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. It’s the truth which reality or history books often obscure. American writer Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno uses fictional characters and set-ups to explore the past and present realities with utmost clarity. The book consists of nine tightly interwoven vignettes which read more like a novel than short stories. The intricately linked web of stories are set in Siberia, St. Petersburg (Leningrad), and Checnya between 1937 and 2014. Anthony Marra’s debut novel ‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena’ was set in a broken-down hospital in war-ravaged Chechnya, which won National Book Award and earned huge acclaims in the Book Critics Circle. With The Tsar of Love and Techno, Mr. Marra takes a broader view of Soviet Union and modern Russia, spanning generations, places and scrutinizing emotional truths. Born in Washington D.C. (in 1984), Mr. Marra has taught himself Russian and studied in Eastern Europe. He also visited the Republic of Chechnya, immediately after the end of brutal second Chechen War. He studied at Iowa’ Writers Workshop and now working as a teacher at Stanford.
The book’s first story ‘Leopard’ is set in 1937 – in the oppressive era of Stalinist purges. The story was written from the point of view of a censor named Roman Osipovich Markin. He works for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. Roman is a failed portrait artist whose job is to airbrush certain persons from official photos whom the Soviet state has purged. When the story starts Roman has already gave up his beloved brother Vaska to authorities for committing rebellious acts. Roman meets Vaska’s wife and his little son Vladimir. He confiscates all the photos of Vaska and asks her to destroy them so as to not fall under the suspicious eyes of the State. This act deeply unsettles Roman, who is torn between his loyalties for the Party and feelings for younger brother. Charged with correcting history, Roman demonstrates his defiant and artistic side by painting the image of his dead brother into the background of each censored work. Roman also hesitates to censor the image of a disgraced Polish ballerina. He leaves her disembodied hand in the portrait. Despite dutifully airbrushing the faces of counterrevolutionaries and dissidents, Roman is betrayed by someone for a crime he didn’t commit.
The second story ‘Granddaughters’ is set in bleak and monstrously polluted Nickel mining town Kirovsk (in Siberia). The year is 2013 and it seems to boast no visible link to the first story. The story unfurls from the point of view of gossiping young women, who recall the story of beautiful ballerina named Galina transported to Kirovsk in 1937, when the town was Siberian labor camp. Although old Galina’s picture is airbrushed out of the portraits, her granddaughter (also named Galina) in an ironic twist of fate, becomes a popular beauty queen. The granddaughter Galina later becomes a huge star and her face is pasted in billboards all across the Russian landscape. Anthony Marra’s stories are defined by actions which mostly oscillate between betrayal and dissidence. Each character’s action in a story sets off consequences or reactions in another story that is far removed from one another, both in terms of setting and character temperament. The best thing about Mr. Marra’s tales is the way he elicits empathy for all characters (Chechens & Russians) while also preserving moral and psychological ambiguities. Like a line drawn from one point to another, the book moves across time and space, intimately recreating truth and palpable emotions that history books more or less fail to deliver.
The structure of The Tsar of Love and Techno resembles that of a mix-tape with eight stories divided into Side A and Side B, and an intermission story in the middle (which is the longest). In fact, an actual mix-tape plays an important role in the stories. All the stories can strongly hold themselves in short-story form, but they gradually intermingle through a carefully designed criss-crossing narration to end up as a novel. Of course, the idea seems a bit gimmicky and contrived. May be in the hands of a lesser writer, the doubt would have turned into an undeniable truth. But Anthony Marra’s delicate prose deepens our empathy for each character that even the rare, heightened dramatic gesture seems like natural occurrence. Marra interweaves inner lives of his players in a way that resembles the visual delight of witnessing elegant dance troupe. In Marra’s dilapidated, ugly, hardened Russia freedoms are few, betrayals & heartbreaks found aplenty. But these stories don’t replicate monotonous voice of sadness. Surprisingly, Marra infuses quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Building humor from bleak narrative is hard. What’s harder is to not use such humor to cheapen the inherent tragedy. Anthony Marra acknowledges the gamut of human suffering flowing throughout the narrative. Yet, the jokes here kick-off as self-defense mechanics for the irredeemably suffering characters. Moreover, the bleak sense of humor takes us through the whole range of human experience, including absurdity, vulgarity, fear, and anger [the titular story and ‘Grozny Tourist Bureau’ incorporates wonderful sense of humor]. Mr. Marra has cited writers Joseph Heller and Anna Politkovskaya as the influential authors for cultivating his humorous streak.
There are various stunning first-hand accounts and historical books on the same subject. In fact, Marra himself mentions some wonderful non-fiction books in the ‘acknowledgement’ section. So why read these strings of tales? The answer to the question could be discovered only after reading the blissful and moving descriptions of seemingly simple incidents or emotions.Mr. Marra instills little lived-in details which authenticates the characters’ universe. He effortlessly finds truth through people’s daily experiences and conjures striking images at different moments of epiphany. When Roman Markin goes through nightmarish interrogation he casually expresses, ‘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’ [apart from the themes of betrayal, power of memory is one of the other book’s important theme. Even a character (Alexei) in the book cites Vladimir Nabokov’s famous quote ‘Memory is the only true real estate’].
One of the most memorable prose is the description of a family picnic on the shores of grotesquely polluted Lake Mercury (in Kirovsk, Siberia), memorialized by the family’s Polaroid photograph: “Never had I seen her so happy, never so loved, so wanted, never had I seen her as a sexual being, as desired quarry, as anything but a taciturn and dissatisfied figure at the kitchen sink who occasionally walloped me over the head with a soup ladle……….I look back at that moment, that afternoon, with flooded longing, and think: We should all be so lucky to get from life a sunny-day swim in chemical waste.” Some of these touching, intimate accounts (hapless 63 year old Vera’s story in ‘Wolf of White Forest’ moved me to tears) brings to mind the distressing real-life voices chronicled in Svetlena Alexievich’s non-fiction books (Voices from Chernobyl, Second-hand Time, etc). There are numerous other quote-worthy passages: ‘You remain the hero of your own story even when you become the villain in someone else’s, ‘the future is the lie with which we justify the brutality of the present’, ‘We enter the stage of life as dolls and exit as gargoyles’, ‘I guess our lives are all dreams – as real to us as they are meaningless to everyone else’…. to quote a few. The specific and realistic anecdotes are what allow Anthony Marra to accurately portray the characters’ fears and desires. And, regardless of the cultural or societal differences, these anecdotes infuse universal qualities.
The Tsar of Love and Techno [320 Pages] is an extraordinary and ambitious fiction which restores the memory of subjugated souls whom history and rulers desires to erase. Writer Anthony Marra’s meticulously realized universe of totalitarianism imparts essential truths about human behavior than any thick volume of history books.
[Author pic courtesy — Robert Wright Photographs]