Fiction. Literature. Short Stories. HTML:From the New York Times bestselling author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomenaâ??dazzling, poignant, and lyrical interwoven stories about family, sacrifice, the legacy of war, and the redemptive power of art. This stunning, exquisitely written collection introduces a cast of remarkable characters whose lives intersect in ways both life-affirming and heartbreaking. A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts. In stunning prose, with rich
The Tsar of Love and Techno begins in 1937 Leningrad.
Marra is a fantastic author, creating unique voices for each character. The way that he plays with structure in this novel left me wanting to immediately begin again so that I could better understand how he weaves together the stories so seamlessly. Almost every page has a sentence that captures the idea it is trying to convey so precisely that it brought me up short. For example: "But to some people ignorance is a sleeping mask they mistake for corrective lenses." This was a very satisfying first read of 2016.
As with âConstellationâ, Marra returns to Chechnya during its devastating wars, and also covers Russia at the time of Stalinâs purges and into the present-day, under Putin and the oligarchs. The conditions are difficult to fathom: corruption, repression, murder, pollution, poverty, conscription, and drugs. And yet, the novel is far from depressing. If anything, itâs uplifting.
One of the common threads is what people do under circumstances that are crushing them â whether it be the censor who paints his dead brother into works of art he is editing for the communist government, or the father living in one of the most polluted cities in the world who quits his job and opens a cheesy cosmonautics museum, or the soldier in Chechnya who invents having a wife, which the others then fantasize over. The elderly swimming in a lake of toxic runoff, as if nothing had ever gone wrong in their wretched lives, symbolized this most of all, and had me emotional, without realizing why, surprised as I read along. The brothers saying good-bye to one another as one went off to war in Chechnya did as well. There are several other moments of poignant beauty.
I think Marra puts his finger on what it is to be Russian. Conditions over the centuries breed mistrust, cynicism, and crime â but at the same time, humor, profundity, and hope. People may live in fantasy worlds to cope, but they also better appreciate reality, and the small moments in life. Through it all there is a dream that Russiaâs time will come, Russiaâs time will eventually come, and I think thatâs what the novel is about.
On America, and compassion:
âShe couldnât understand why so many of its residents viewed nursing homes as elderly storage where sons and daughters imprison parents to recompense unresolved childhood traumas. Compared to elder care in Russia, it was a beacon of warmth and compassion. When she saw her first wheelchair ramp in LAX, she had mistaken it for some kind of weird public sculpture. When she learned what a wheelchair ramp was, when she learned that they were mandated by law, she felt a pure rush of patriotism for a country sheâd only been living in for a few hours. Of the centuryâs magnificent and terrible inventions, what was more humane, more elegant, more generous than the wheelchair ramp?â
On art, and compassion:
âThe portrait artist must acknowledge human complexity with each brushstroke. The eyes, nose, and mouth that compose a sitterâs face, just like the suffering and joy that compose his soul, are similar to those of ten million others yet still singular to him. This acknowledgment is where art begins. It may also be where mercy begins. If criminals drew the faces of their victims before perpetrating their crimes and judges drew the faces of the guilty before sentencing them, then there would be no faces for executioners to draw.â
âVera had held this body when it was moments old, had washed, fed, clothed it, and on her best days she couldnât look at her daughter without swelling with self-regard for having given birth to someone so worthy of love. Now that body had grown beyond the jurisdiction of her protection. Though it was rarely deployed in Veraâs emotional vocabulary, she could think of no better word than wonder to describe the startling closeness of just standing here beside her child. Forget Lydiaâs poor choices. Forget the demons Vera could only guess at. The very fact Lydia was alive gave her mother the faith to believe she had done this one thing right.â
âSergei had replied in a garbled sob, the compact heat of his breath like a hand dryer on Vladimirâs skin. If you could trade, but you couldnât. If there was a way to make it okay, but there wasnât. If you can, but you canât. Why are children doomed to remain beautiful to their parents, even when they become so ugly to themselves?â
On communism (LeninâŠwow):
âNo doubt he had heard Leninâs famous reaction to Beethovenâs Sonata No. 23: It is wonderful, ethereal music. But I am unable to listen to it. It moves me to stroke the heads of my fellow beings for being able to produce such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. It is necessary to smash those heads, smash them without mercy.â
âIâd never imagined that something as solemn and final as death could be this idiotic. It was the keyhole through which I first glimpsed lifeâs madness: The institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved oneâs will fail us, and death is a falling piano.â
On good-bye, and brotherly love; very touching scenes in the book:
âI counted down from ten as Kolya hummed the national anthem. Sometimes heâd clasp my hand to his chest and as his pulse throbbed against my palm the act seemed less like make-believe than the rehearsal for a final good-bye.
âYou will have the last human thought,â I whispered.
âYou will be that thought,â he said.
âYou will have the last word.â
âYour name will be the last word.ââ
On heroes and villains:
âWhat did he see when he saw me? You remain the hero of your own story even when you become the villain of someone elseâs.â
âBeneath the sheets they were pale and naked and they pouched their hands in the warmth between their stomachs. They pressed together with a need that is never satisfied because we canât trade atoms no matter how hard we thrust. Our hearts may skip but our substance remains fixed. Weâre not gaseous no matter how we wish to cloud together inseparably. Nothing less would have satisfied Kolya, nothing less than obliterating himself in her was sufficient.â
âOur children forever changed our relationships with our mothers. Pity replaced the mild contempt with which we had previously regarded them, and we loved them as we never had before, as we could only love ourselves, because despite our best intentions we had become them.â
On Russian metro stations, which are indeed beautiful:
âIâm talking about the metro. The Palace of the People, thatâs what Lenin, Stalin, and Khrushchev called it. A palace not for tsars or princes, but for you and me.â
On war, words which certainly apply in America today:
âHolding the gun made me feel taller up top and longer down below. Somewhere in Chechnya was an eighteen-year-old Muslim holding a pistol for the first time and feeling this same surge of power?â
These bits of humor:
âYouâre probably thinking that Iâm a high-density, dehydrated slab of manliness, a testosterone prune, if you will, but as a boy, I was a plum.â
âThe following morning the cabin attendant yanked me by my ear from a restful slumber. This was to be expected, given the only required experience for Russian Railways employment is a history of anger issues.â
âShe was no taller than me â which is not to say I was short, just short for a biped.â
âElderly women who hadnât smiled since Gorbachev was general secretary queued outside the post office. They wore overcoats in midsummer, distrustful of every source of authority, even the calendar.â
ââYeah, Iâm getting my masterâs at LSE.â
âThatâs the London airport?â
He smiled. âLondon School of Economics.â Suddenly I was the yak-humping bumpkin from the Republic of Whogivesafuckistan and he was, well, the kind of person I wanted to be.â
âWhat my father lacked in education, he made up for in opinions. I silently prepared to hibernate through the long winter of his lecture.â
And finally this, putting its finger on both the smallness of man in the universe and at the same time, the miracle of his existence; the tenuous thread of our lives, but at the same, the meaning in its everyday moments:
âItâs ridiculous, so stupid, I know, to cross the entire solar system just to hear you and Galina butcher Tchaikovsky. If ever there was an utterance of perfection, it is this. If God has a voice, it is ours.
The calcium in the collarbones I have kissed. The iron in the blood flushing in those cheeks. We imprint our intimacies upon atoms born from an explosion so great it still marks the emptiness of space. A shimmer of photons bears the memory across the long, dark amnesia. We will be carried too, mysterious particles that we are.
In what dream does the empty edge of the universe hold this echo of vitality? In what prayer does the last human not die alone? Who would have imagined you would be with me, here, so far from life on Earth, so filled with its grace?
One more time through.
From the beginning.
Just give me that.
In the 1930s, a failed portrait artist, is given the task, by Soviet censors, to erase images, from photographs. He will blot out the faces, of all political
This is the first tale, in a collection of interconnected stories, that span the decades. There is a legendary ballerina, a retired gangster, a pair of mercenaries, nickel miners and various war criminals, all thrown in to a vast human mixtape and all anchored by Marra's wonderful prose and his uncanny ability to capture the Russian landscape, in it's many diverse forms.
I was first introduced to Marra, through his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena which completely blew me away. I am happy to report, his streak continues. He is quickly becoming a very important American writer.
So many other reviewers have synopsized the various interlocking narratives and have rhapsodized over Marra's exquisite writing that I will not repeat those efforts here. Instead, I want to comment on two things which stood out for me. First was Marra's telling of "Granddaughters" in the first person plural (i.e., from the point of view of "we"). The "we" are a group of six women who are reflecting on their lost seventh member Lydia and the beauty they both admired and envied from afar, Galina. Of course, what they say is actually more a commentary on, and defense of, their own life choices. Marra has captured perfectly the voice of a group of girls, the tone of mingled jealousy of the one who got away and self-satisfaction at the fallen one forced to return.
The second element I particularly enjoyed was how Marra tied his cast of characters together, not only through the bonds of friendship and family, but also with their connections to a particular landscape painting. Like the comic book in Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven , this painting moves from hand to hand, valued by some simply as an artistic object but by others because of what really happened on the hill depicted in it. As much as I admired Station Eleven, though, Marra's use of this device is so much more nuanced and organic. His writing in this regard is masterful.
I did not particularly care for the book's cover, which, I am ashamed to admit, is why The Tsar of Love and Techno languished for so long on my to be read list. I should know better than to judge a book by its cover.
I received a free copy of The Tsar of Love and Techno through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
And to me, it read more like a novel than just a collection of short stories. The stories are all interconnected, and loop back and
Mr. Marra's writing is extraordinary. Without being flowery, it is remarkably, beautifully descriptive. The characters are both hopeful and resigned.
I didn't mark passages as I was reading, so I flipped the book open at random to look for an example. The first thing I read:
âBack in my room, I scanned my modest belongings. Bottles filled with dusk light stood in the corner. The long-rotting carcass of my academic career sprawled across the desk.â And then, âThere I was, Napoleon's height and I couldn't even conquer the apartment WC. I slipped the two pickle jars into the duffle, the Polaroid into my pocket, and then slipped myself out the door.â
There is a painting that keeps reappearing, censors who fail to properly censor, and a mix tape to be used only in case of emergency. Ballerinas and brothers.
These stories are not a straightforward telling of a story, but tell a story they do, in a winding, meandering path, sprinkled with humor and soul, and all the more beautiful for the journey they take.
I was given an advance reader's copy of this book for review. The quotes may have changed in the published edition.
I heard the author of this book speak at a book festival a few weeks ago, and he said that he felt one of his greatest strengths as a writer had to do with creating and solving puzzles. I remember absolutely loving that about his first book: the way the characters and their stories gradually intertwined to create this amazing tapestry. I don't think I read this book carefully enough to really take it all in.
Another thing Marra said in his talk was that he likes to use objects in his writing as needles to weave the various threads of stories together. I really like this about his writing, both in this book and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
I wasn't blown away by this book like I was by Marra's first novel, but I would still highly recommend it.
So I guess you could say I had a strong emotional response to this book. Marra really knows how to wield that deadly combination of humor and sadness. He knows just how to make you lower your guard, and then before you know it he's punched you in the gut, you're uncontrollably weepy, and snot is running down your face. Not just any book can make me feel so vulnerable.
The Tsar of Love and Techno is a series of time-hopping short stories that each revolve, in some way, around the actions of a Soviet censor. Using multiple narratives, Marra shows us the many ways that art can hurt, heal, inspire, and betray us. He shows that there is beauty in the pain and absurdity of life, and that can sometimes be our only comfort. Each character has depth and complexity, each is meticulously and expertly rendered. Each story is good enough on its own that it could serve as a stand alone, but together they're something else.
An artist responsible for removing people from history.
Two ballerinas separated by a generation.
A quietly defiant man in love with a scarred and blind woman.
Two Russian prisoners of war.
Two young brothers living in a forest of metal.
A woman who was responsible for the execution of her own mother.
Young men seeking to avoid the war, and a father who will save his son by any means.
These are the characters that make up these stories.
My final word: I've become a huge fan of author Anthony Marra! His writing is top notch, the characters well developed, the storylines are fresh and innovative. His stories are full of strong characters, and his writing is overflowing with sensitivity and barrenness. There's a beauty in its desolation. Please read anything you can get your hands on written by this author!
As with any book of short stories, there will be those you enjoy more than others. My favorite in this collection is the first one, âThe Leopardâ, which tells about a censor working for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation in 1937. His job is to paint over enemies of the people from official images and artwork as if he could erase their entire existence from history. There are two scenes in this story that were heart breaking â the first is when he is commanded to paint over the image of his own deceased brother and the second when he works on the painting of a disgraced ballerina.
The authorâs world is one that reads like a dystopian novel. The fact that this world actually existed makes it all the more harrowing. Itâs a world where daughters turn in their mothers as traitors, a world where one wrong act or a whisper in the wrong ear can bring about accusation and execution. Itâs a frightening world but also a world that shows startling beautiful moments of love. Itâs a very moving book, though not an easy, quick read. There were times Iâd get somewhat confused as to which character the story was about due to the many characters and locations and jumping around in time but I usually got back into it fairly quickly. Itâs well worth the read and now Iâm looking forward even more to reading the authorâs first book âA Constellation of Vital Phenomenaâ. Recommended.
This book was given to me by Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.
I listened to the audiobook version, which was read by three narrators â Mark Bramhall, Beata Pozniak, and Rustam Kasymov. They did a great job, and it gave me a more realistic sense of place, than struggling through names and places that I find hard to pronounce.
I was very taken with this book.
This did have
Even the places where I thought Marra might lose meâthe title story, in the middle of the book, flirts a bit much with clever tossed-away aphorisms in the way Gary Shteyngart can put me off sometimesâbut the humanity in the stories shone through enough to reel me back in. Even the last story, which actually is almost cruelly sentimental, still won me over. Taken as a whole, this was an impressive book.
I was sad almost the entire time I was reading it, shepherding my dear dog through surgery and then waiting for what I convinced myself would inevitably bad news (it wasn't), and the underlying sadness of the book meshed perfectly with my mood. It's not a chipper read. But very human, and humane, and I liked it a lot.
They learn to censor before they learn to write. They were never taught to create what they now destroy, and have no appreciation of what, precisely, they sacrifice. Loc 160
This elegiac thought is one that author Anthony Marra follows throughout this masterful collection of nine short stories. One author, one country, combined with multiple times, characters and sensibilities all moving as different colors to emerge, in the final story, in a landscape gorgeous in its hues and textures. That there is a painting in the stories, one modified and desired by a number of characters, and that this painting is a real one by a Russian artist from Chechnya only adds to the complexity of each story. The correction artist links to the son of a religious revolutionary links to a ballerina to a camp commandant to a grand-daughter to an oligarch to a mercenary to his brotherâŠand does not stop there. Along the way and through the decades there is the painting, a photograph, a cassette tape and the memories, both collective and personal, that infuse each of these extraordinary ordinary characters.
The way in which Marra writes about the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia encapsulates the fatalistic humor of a people who have been led down so many overgrown paths that they no longer believe there is a way out. Instead, with a cynical acceptance theyâve settled into the surreal aspects of their lives. During the time of Brezhnev he describes robust young men entering civil service only to emerge years later
âanemic and stooped, cured forever of the inclination to be civil or of service to anyoneâ loc 1026
Or a group of friends who, in spreading rumors, may have contributed to the death of another friendâs daughter
Our role in Lydiaâs murder blemishes the otherwise sterling regard we have for ourselves. Los 930
And for Kolya, a man who appears in one way or another in almost each storyâas a soldier who fights in the war against Chechnya, loses his fiancĂ© to a wealthy man and then becomes a mercenary in order to send his younger brother to university he accepts his choices but
âŠhe couldnât shake the sense that he was the architect of a city made entirely of off-ramps, all leading away from him. Loc 2752
It is safe to say that by the time I finished The Tsar of Love and Techno I had read the book twice because each of Marraâs words/sentences/phrases/paragraphs are all so magical I needed to read and repeat. That one person can blend such an ambrosia of gallows humor, self-deprecation, satire, and pathos into each of these stories would be beyond my imagining if I had not read it. I know as reviewers there are a finite amount of words we can use and repetition is inevitable, but Iâm relatively certain Iâve not used this one before. Brilliant is the only word that fits a work that so perfectly reflects the tone of its time and place. The Tsar of Love and Techno is brilliant. The End.
Marra's second book is a collection of linked short stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno, set in the USSR. This collection covers a wider range of years and characters, and it is even more brilliant because of that.
Marra starts off strong with The Leopard, a story set in 1937 that drops the reader into an nearly improbable situation, yet one that happened everyday in the Soviet Union. Roman Markin works in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. His job is to erase people who have been determined by the government to be traitors.
He literally erases them- painting over them in photos and paintings. Families are ordered to turn over any evidence that a loved one ever existed to be eliminated. Roman visits his sister-in-law to collect photos of his brother Vaska, her husband who was executed for his religious practices, and to warn her of the dangers of disobeying the government.
Roman also instructs his sister-in-law to take photographs of her son every year in case she is arrested and he is placed in an orphanage. This will make it easier to find him if she is ever released. That fact just floored me.
Roman continues his work daily erasing people from existence. But he began adding something too- he put his dead brother into every painting he censored. He put images of Vaska as a young boy, a teen, an adult, an older man. Every single image he worked on had Vaska in it to atone for Roman's guilt over his brother.
Others people we meet in the collection of stories include Galina, the beautiful granddaughter of a famous ballerina, who deserted her first love to become the wife of a wealthy oil oligarch. We read of Kolya, her first love who became a soldier and drug dealer, and his brother Alexei who makes a mixtape for his brother to take into war with him.
A painting by a famous Russian artist of a pasture ties the stories together. Roman puts his brother into it, and Kolya ends up spending too much time in the actual pasture under unfortunate circumstances. Many of the characters in the story have a connection to this painting and it is a lifeline to some.
The writing in The Tsar of Love and Techno just stuns. Writing of how people turned their neighbors in to police for any suspected infraction, he says " Our city was small and whispers easily became verdict." That sentence conveys everything about life then and there in nine words.
Other examples are :
"The obvious is only obvious when it happens to someone else."
"I said nothing, and as is often the case with men who possess more power than wisdom, he took my silence for affirmation."
"Wealth announces itself with what's easy to break and impossible to clean." (Talking about Galina's apartment filled with white carpets and expensive chairs and art.)
"To say he felt guilty would ascribe to ethical borders that were lines on a map of a country that no longer existed."
"Uncertainty recalibrated the moral compass to point toward survival."
It took me a week to read The Tsar of Love and Techno because I simply didn't want it to ever end. I would read a story, and then take time to appreciate the writing, the complexity of the story, and what life was like for these people under the Soviet regime. What it took to survive, the choices people were forced to make when no good choice existed, just crushed me.
This is another masterpiece from Marra, one that proves that he is a force to be reckoned with in literature for a long time. I cannot do his book justice in this review, suffice it to say that The Tsar of Love and Techno knocked me out and is the best book I have read this year, possibly in two years. I give it my highest recommendation.
I love books that feature connected short stories. That said, I wish I had kept notes of the characters' names from the beginning, because so many reappear much later in the book, and it took me a bit to wrap my head around who was who. Because not everyone knows everyone else. I feel like
At the same time, though, the use of the painting to connect the characters bugs me just a touch. It smacks of one of my favorite books, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by Susan Vreeland, published in 1999. If you liked this one, I highly recommend that one. Yes it's different, but you'll see what I mean!
ARC from publisher.
I listened to the audiobook. Each of the stories was read by a different narrator, which was effective.