Friday, January 15, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra's The Tsar of Love and Techno falls into the strange space between full-on novel and collection of short stories, kind of like Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress, but with more of the characters being connected and having their lives intersect with each other. I picked it up because I enjoyed Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a novel that also focused on Chechnya and the conflict that has raged there.

The Situation: It is 1937 in Russia and Roman Osipovich Markin is one of the best censors working for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. After visiting his brother's widow and making sure she had scratched her late husband's image from any photographs she may have - an act that is meant more for her and her son's protection than for anything else - he continues his work altering paintings and removing the images and likenesses of those who are found out to be disloyal to the Soviet Union. But after visiting his brother's wife, he now finds himself inserting his brother's image into every picture he censors. Sometimes Vaska is inserted as a young boy; other times he is a young man, and in still others he is old. Roman's alterations of certain paintings will have a direct effect on people's lives for years to come. 

The Problem: Most of the stories that come out of the lives touched by Roman's work are tragic and filled with hardship, and all against the backdrop of first a communist nation, and then one in seemingly endless conflict for one reason or another. The granddaughter of a famous ballerina who was removed from a painting years before enjoys a good amount of celebrity and the benefits of being married to a wealthy official, before fortune leaves her and she returns to a humble life back home among the people she grew up. The man she was betrothed to before she became a star would join the army, twice, before becoming one of two prisoners held captive in a well. His brother would become a forever student searching for answers about his brother's whereabouts. And the son and grandson of the man who was inserted into all of those pictures will end up discovering the truth at an art showing many years later.  

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that reads more like a collection of short stories. It starts in 1937 and moves back and forth through time, going as far as 2013. Much like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra places many of his scenes and characters right in the heart of the conflict in Chechnya. And because the story begins in the 1930s, there is also some mention of communist Russia and the Cold War. As a censor, it is Roman's job to alter paintings containing the images of those the government wishes to erase from their history. Almost everyone lives under the threat of being turned in as a dissenter. And even after the Cold War has ended and the Soviet Union has fallen, people still must be careful about what they say, and who they work with. One secret spilled to the wrong person could cost you your livelihood, as well as your life. At times the book seems to be an indictment of Russia and an expose on what it is like to live there, even in modern times. 

My Verdict: I don't much care for short story collections, so I was dubious when I picked this book up. However, I was also hopeful because of how much I enjoyed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Marra does not disappoint with a masterfully told story that moves through time and connects everyone's story. There was a moment close to the end where I wondered what the plot of this book was, since it bounces around from one character to the next, filling in gaps here and there, while not immediately completing any one story. But by the end, it is clear where the author was headed and what the focus of the story is. It isn't all about communism, or war, or even censorship. For me it was about the strangest and littlest things that can connect people, while also illustrating what it is like living in a place where everyone is watching and conflict can break out almost at any time. 

Favorite Moment: When Nadya's surgery to restore sight to her right eye is successful.

Favorite Character: Kolya's little brother Alexei. He is a little silly, but he makes mix tapes and even sends his brother off with one when he joins the army. 

Favorite Quotes: "The institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved ones will fail us, and death is a falling piano."

"The problem with rejection is that it feels imposed even when it's earned." 

Recommended Reading:  Of course I recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, but also Girl at War by Sara Nović.

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