Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

 "Everything large enough to love eventually disappoints you, then betrays you, and finally, forgets you. But the things small enough to fit into a shoebox, these stay as they were."
If you spend any amount of time with Russian literature (or a Russian babushka), you will be confronted with the idea of the Russian Soul. The Russian Soul sets Russia and Russians on a level above us philistines; it sets them apart from the West, gives them faith in times of crisis, and allows them to see the redemptive beauty of suffering. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekov, etc. all wrestle with this essential Russianness as they try to rationalize their way through their own evolving religious faiths. I spent four years of college trying to figure out what, exactly, the Russian Soul is, and while I still can't define it succinctly, I can confidently say The Tsar of Love and Techno is just oozing with it.

The book starts out with what I think is my favorite vignette of the whole shebang. Roman Osipovich is a censor for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation in 1930's Leningrad. A classically trained painter, he has been enlisted by the regime to paint away people who have been "disappeared" in photographs, murals, and library books. In their place, he begins to paint the face of his dead brother (who himself has been "disappeared"), leaving a trail of clues for the dead man's son so that he has a record of what his father looked like. Even read on its own, it's an almost perfect little nugget of Russian tragedy: It's beautiful and heart wrenching and you hate the main character so much that by the end you start to love him. 

From Leningrad, Marra takes us to Kivorsk, a town above the arctic circle, to Chechnya, to Moscow. The stories span seven decades and weave in and out of each other effortlessly. Narration shifts from story to story, but the book still somehow feels cohesive and manageable. Throughout, Marra scatters ridiculously Russian characters (a soldier who heavily implies that he lost both of his legs in an explosion in Chechnya, but really got drunk and fell asleep on trolley tracks; a mother who continues to write her daughter letters filled with wildly exaggerated and optimistic versions of her life even after the daughter has moved back in with her, a father obsessed with space, despite never having seen the stars because his home is permanently covered in haze) and absurdly Russian scenarios (a forest made of metal and plastic trees commissioned by the government for morale, a ballet performance by a prima ballerina in a gulag, The Kivorsk Museum of Inner and Outer Space whose exhibits are made up entirely of repurposed trash from aforementioned metal forest). In typical Russian Epic fashion, the characters are all so deeply flawed that you can't help but feel for them even when they do horrible, unforgivable things. When they do, on occasion, redeem themselves, you are suddenly convinced that all the problems in the world are going to work themselves out. 

My only slight issue with it was the ending. The last story circles back to one of the main characters who has died during a land mine explosion. We meet him again after he has died while he hurtles through space in a capsule he and his brother built from trash as kids. His body is slowly disintegrating and his life drifts past him as he listens to a tape of his brother and ex-girlfriend singing to him. This level of tripped out craziness is totally out of character with the rest of the book, and I was pretty annoyed with it until I got to this line: "If ever there was an utterance of perfection, it is this. If God has a voice, it is ours." This is some next level modern Russian Soul insanity, and I totally forgave Marra for getting weird. 

If you love Russia, read this book. If you hate people, read this book. If you love people, read this book. Really...just read this book. 


Christopher said...

Hooray Chloe!

Brent Waggoner said...

Great review. This is on my list for the year, so it's cool to see that someone else read it.

Dani said...

This is now on my list for this year, too. Can't wait!

Brittany said...

This is definitely on my list this year. I love love loved A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon (it was actually my number 1 book of 2013). I've seen the Tsar on a lot of lists but totally did not realize it was by the same author or else I would have picked it up RIGHT AWAY.