********************** SPOILERS!!!! ***********************
I’m not sure what I expected from a volume with the subtitle “stories” which has a cassette tape on the cover. What is this? According to brief reviews it deals with the harsh realities of Russia’s northernmost mining outposts, and love. I feel like I’ve read enough about Russian history in general along with some contemporary fiction about Russian. But Anthony Marra’s prior book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was phenomenal so I was looking forward to this one.
The Tsar of Love and Techno
by Anthony Marra
2015/ 352 pages
** It’s a minor work.” – Pyotr Zakharov- Chechenets , regarding his 1843 painting, Empty Pastures in afternoon. **
Pyotr Zakharov Chechenets, the author of the quote in the epigraph, is mentioned throughout the interwoven stories – he was a real painter of Chechen origin and he mainly worked on portraits, but the painting referred to in Marra’s novel is fictional.
Actually, I think the structure of this book is more of a novel told in a series of short stories than it is a series of short stories which kind of combine on some level. This is way beyond that. I think this because after the second story there are so many character and event connections between the stories the reader tries to connect them further creating a novel.
But considering the structure it’s more like a musical album (or a “mixtape“) with a “Side A,” and a “Side B” but what the Intermission would be I don’t know – the time we take to turn the cassette tape over? – a bridge like in a classical piece? A transition back to something?
Musical albums are created from individual songs usually put together with a theme. That’s exactly how this is but there are more than thematic connections. And there’s the mixtape which a couple of the main characters created – that’s the graphic on the cover. And because there are a whole variety of points of view and time frames maybe it’s more like a “mixtape.”
The tone is gently ironic overall, and sometimes it’s just plain funny, but still, there’s always a very grim underlying reality of Stalin’s regime, the war in Chechnya, the fall of Communism, the pollution of the north. And, as in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, it’s also full of love amongst the horrors – or the memory of horrors- current horrors, and how the horrors haunt the lives of the main characters.
The characters, even though their stories are cut up by the structure, come across as being quite nicely developed. The minor characters are sometimes brilliant for instance the older ones all are kind of Cold War and Stalin oriented even in 2010 while the younger ones seem more free and desiring of peace as well as love and technology in those latter years.
** “The Leopard – Leningrad, 1937” – Set in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1937, the 1st person narrator is and artist and censor in Stalin’s regime. For the regime’s political purposes, he removes faces from photographs. . He also sometimes replaces them with another face. One day he finds a photograph of a beautiful ballerina, and …
** The next story, “Granddaughters – Kirovsk, 1937-2013” takes place in a labor camp in the town of Kirovsk – (north of the Arctic Circle- near Finland) the dates given being 1937 – 2013 but most of the story takes place in about the year 2000. It concerns a nice looking girl, ballet and the Miss Siberia contest. One of the girls is the granddaughter of the ballerina in the first story. Another girl is telling the story in 1st person.
** “The Grozny Tourist Bureau, Grozney, 2003” Grozny is the capital of Chechnya and the setting of Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.)
Told by a 1st person character named Ruslan who is the newlyappointed head of the Grozny Tourist Bureau. Ruslan used to be the deputy “Director of the Museum of Regional Art.” Now he uses some Zakharov prints for his PR pamphlets. But in 2007 Grozny was declared the most devastated city on earth by the BBC. so, “…we have an image problem.” – lol This is now Ruslan’s problem.
His friend and neighbor, Nadya, has photos in her apartment which are obviously “touched up” by the censor-artist in the first story. He was the subject of her dissertation and she was working on the restoration of the originals but she’s been blind for several years, since the rocket attack of Grozny in 1999.
** “A Prisoner of the Caucasus – Chechen Highlands, 2000” – Kolya and Danilo are soldiers, captured in Chechnya and held prisoner by an old man who has them dig in the field but feeds them and hides them from the Chechen rebels. They have a picture of
** “Intermission: St. Petersburg, 2010; Kirvosk, 1990s” – “The Tsar of Love and Techno” The 1st person is Alexei, Kolya’s brother.
- Alexei visits Galina, Kolya’s old girlfriend in St. Petersburg. . They are at her house and she shows him the landscape mentioned in chapter 3 (above).
- In Kirvosk, 1999, Alexei and Kolya in their early teens, build a rocket and there’s some fantasy here – their father is a space museum and outer space freak in a city where they can’t see the stars for the polluted skies. (metaphor) A fraud with dreams. The boys build and shoot off a rocket (fantasy?).
- On a train to St. Petersburg, 2010 – Alexei is a huge dreamer.
- Kirovsk, 1990 – chemical waste in the lake and how the boys, Alexei and Kolya, got the bikinis – mom dies
- St. Petersburg 2010 – Alexei in an apartment he lives in with several others. He’s 28 now, ditching classes, has his mother’s ashes and the Zakharov painting. Father, mother and brother (Kolya) are dead. He calls Galina and decides to act on his dreams by going to the Chechen field where Kolya died.
- Alexei telling the story of Kolya from days in high school in Kirovsk where he met Galina and taught her to dance. Second part in 2010 as Alexei goes from St. Petersburg to Grozny with the cremains of his mother and the polaroid photo.
- Alexei packs up the mixtape and the pickle jars to travel to Grozny
- Alexei in Grozny – Kolya had gone to Chechnya (Grozny) as a soldier in 1995 and returned there in 2000 which is when he was killed. Alexie is returning with the ashes of his parents.
- He gets to Grozny and meets a man who takes him to the the museum by the field. They find the field. The man leaves.
- Alexei tells about Kolya’s life – how he dreams of Galina and the baby – how he comes home to find the reality – and how he returns to Chechnya as a contract soldier, a mercenary.
- Alexei finds the field, the tree, the home – they match his painting. There are two people there.
** “Wolf of White Forest – Kirovsk, 1999” The story of Vera (of a prior chapter) is told – 3rd person. She’s becomes a friend of Kolya during the year he is back in Kirvosk. She talks about her daughter Lydia (a prior chapter) in America and Lydia returns. Kolya leaves for Chechnya.
** “Palace of the People – St. Petersburg, 2001 – First person with Sergei Vladimirovich who admits to killing Kirov (Kirovsk?) – His friends are doing crimes to go to jail to escape Chechnya. He now goes with Kirill, a disabled vet, on a train collecting donations – they wear uniforms. His father was a drug dealer and his mother turned him in and then she died. His father keeps portraits of himself all over his walls.
His father turns out to be the son of Zakharov –
**”A Temporary Exhibition – St. Petersburg 2011-2013”
Vladimir – identity theft – this is the fabulously wealthy but crippled Sergei in an internet cafe with his father.
Nadya – Kolya’s old blind friend, Nadya is having surgery on her eyes. Her friend Ruslan the tour guide of Grozny, is with her.
Sergei – buys his father a smart phone for selfies. an exhibition
will be held about father’s uncle, the censor –
Vladimir – is going to the exhibition but would rather die – he finds his father, the father he reported, in the paintings and the curator explains and he shares.
Nadya – returns home from her exhibition in St Petersburg –
** “The End – Outer Space, Year Unknown” Kolya’s death with the mixtape –