The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Amazing book, way better than its title!  Think Marra’s prior novel,  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and mix it up with Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) and you’re close.   This is the story of a small, outrageously polluted, town in northernmost Siberia, Kirvosk, and some of the people who lived and died there from 1937 on.  Some of them died in the days of censorship and paranoia under Stalin,  others died when they were sent to the Chechen wars of 1995 and 2000.  Still others died in the meantime or later.   It’s also a story of love, forgiveness, courage, cowardliness, dreams, criminality and did I say love?  That’s okay,  I’ll say it again.

The Tsar of Love and Techno 
by Anthony Marra
2015/ 352 pages
Read by:  Mark Bramhall,  Beata Pozniak, Rustam Kasymov  – 10h 46m
ating:   9.5 / contemporary literary fiction
(read and listened)

The parts about Chechnya and the theme of love in times of serious horrors are reminiscent of Marra’s prior work.  The structure is from Mitchell.

The front cover is perfect. That’s a cassette tape in the center with the word “Stories” written on it.  When a cassette tape is full of  various things, usually different musical pieces,  which a user has put on there it’s called a mixtape.   The structure of The Tsar of Love and Techno is like a mixtape in that it starts with the pieces on Side A.  then there is an Intermission or a bridge – (the time when we take it out maybe?)  – a separation and coming together piece  – and then comes Side B which has more pieces.  – Marra has used the terms Side A and Side B instead of the common “Part I” and “Part II”   But it works brilliantly because a very important part of the story is the creation of a mixtape by one of the characters.

I’d definitely give the book a subtitle of “: A Novel”  rather than “Stories”  although it’s not until later on in the book,  maybe after the “Intermission,” the stories (chapters?)  are only loosely connected.   I read fairly carefully and was able to put most of it together,  but this is one of those books which cries out for a second reading.

The book opens with a 1st person censor/artist in Leningrad erasing the photos of those people who are considered “enemies” of the Stalinist regime – enemies of “the people.”   Their photos are taken out of group shots and individually.   That’s 1937.

Then it switches to the community of Kirovsk, in the very northernmost tip of Siberia where the grandchildren of the old labor camp community and it’s in second person focusing on the granddaughter of a famous but censored ballerina.

For summaries and photos see NOTES:

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 and its aftermath,  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 and current horrors,  and how the horrors haunt the lives of the main characters. And how they love anyway.

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