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The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra’s second book, The Tsar of Love and Techno, purports to be a collection of interwoven short stories. Set out like tracks on a mixtape, they create a sense of place so vivid that the remote, frozen and apocalyptic town of Kirovsk, and a quiet hillside in Chechnya, felt like characters in their own right. Armed with a basic knowledge of Russian history from 1930 to 1990, I thought I was prepared for the bleak desolation and indiscriminate destruction of the Cold War, Stalin’s purges and the Chechen war. However, experiencing the lives of those who were affected by them as they struggle for love, acceptance and with the conflict between loyalty to kin versus loyalty to the state was far more upsetting than I ever imagined.

It takes nothing less than the whole might of the state to erase a person, but only the error of one individual – if that is what memory is now called – to preserve her.

Consisting of 9 stories divided into two sides with a long intermission, the book spans several generations of people who are connected through locations, actions and a pastoral painting of a hillside in Chechnya. A Soviet censor inserts his brother’s face into the spaces left by those he erases. Two mercenaries are imprisoned in a Chechen well. The granddaughter of a prima ballerina enters the first Miss Siberia pageant. A drug-addict becomes a war veteran’s assistant. The elderly go swimming in a heavily polluted lake. Two little boys plan their solution to the pending nuclear war, by building a rocket from scrap junk. With motifs of war, destruction, love, betrayal and a continuing theme of art’s powers of redemption, Marra creates a complex and vivid picture of the spirit of ordinary Russians.

You see, Kolya was a hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame, the kind of young man who makes you feel inadequate for not impressing him. He was forever leaning, slanting, sidling, his existence italicized down to his crooked hat. In another country, he might have grown up to be an investment banker, but here he grew up to be a murderer, the worst kind of murderer, the kind who murdered one of us.

Marra is a master storyteller. He weaves aphorisms together with witty one-liners, giving a strong sense of Russian flavor to what might otherwise be a book too bleak to endure. Steeped in tragedy, the points of light (frequently created through irony, surrealism and the blatant hypocrisy of Soviet bureaucracy) made the book an entertaining read. Additionally, the cast of characters are intriguing in their nastiness. As I kept turning the pages, however, I became more and more invested in these rather despicable characters. Perhaps the biggest shift in my feelings for a character was for Kolya; mercenary, murderer, gangster and creep, I found myself inextricably ensnared in his story, rooting for him and distraught at every obstacle he faced.

She lived in a top floor penthouse with a chest-tightening view, lined with thick white carpets that may have been polar bear pelts. Wealth announces itself with what’s easy to break and impossible to clean. The chairs were all curvy works of art that turned sitting into yoga exercises. Jasmine and plum perfumed the air. A crooning tenor went into histrionics on the Bose. Dozy bronze Buddhas meditated on the bookshelf. I was wondering if artsy-fartsy types in Tibet fetishize crucifixes when Galina returned, her loosely tied kimono yawning at the chest and knees.

The descriptions make this book extraordinary, conveying a complex morality that arises out of the betrayal of the all-powerful state’s failure to live up to its promises. Left with nothing to believe in, merely trying to survive a life in which one in two will die of lung cancer from the pollution of the factories that arose out of the gulags, the people scrape out a living in sulphur-laden, icy tundra. The portrayal of different characters is vivid. I feel like I know these people intimately, and that they are thoroughly real; I ache with their pain. This book made me cry great ugly sobs of grief.

I’d never imagined that something as solemn and final as death could be this idiotic. It was the keyhole through which I first glimpsed life’s madness: The institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved ones will fail us, and death is a falling piano.

The book begs re-reading as every loose end is neatly tied off, every subplot resolved, every apparently unimportant detail becomes pivotal. Characters who initially were minor and barely mentioned became the most affecting, while the “main” characters faded into oblivion, with the echoes of their actions branching out into every other character’s life. The complexity of this book in structure and in style is incredibly detailed, and I found myself googling places to see if such apocalyptic hell-holes could really exist – and they do. You can even listen to a mix tape playlist that accompanies the book. This book is a significant artistic achievement and I am giving it a well-deserved spot amongst the best books I’ve ever read.

This is a good thing, she tells herself. This will change me. I’ll be a better person. I’ll be the person I want to be. Everything will be different. This is what I’ve been searching for. In the flash there’s no final thought, no final reflection, just the breath carried from her body on the back of a bullet.

I haven’t read a book this good in a long time. I feel that five stars are not enough; a rating out of five doesn’t do it justice. This is an absolute must-read. It’s a perfect 10. Stop what you are doing and read it right now. Make sure you have some tissues handy.