This review was originally published in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 October 2015.
What is it about the spare beauty of Anthony Marra’s prose that makes us want to laugh and cry at the same time? His sentences are so deceptively simple and yet so layered with meaning that a paragraph, and then a page, and then a story leave a reader somewhat breathless and a little shell-shocked. Stack the interleaving stories on top of each other and it’s almost too much to take in.
This was the revelatory experience so many of us had in discovering his debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and here is Marra again as he offers us the luminous, fully intertwined stories of his second book, The Tsar of Love and Techno. Each story is written to stand on its own, but the magic is revealed in how he has fitted them all together.
In Constellation, Marra introduced us to the bombed-out wreckage of Chechnya through two wars. Tsar bring us back again, in and around Grozny, designated by the United Nations as “the most devastated city on earth,” where reclaimed office doors from destroyed buildings are used to repave the streets because every cement truck is hijacked before it can reach a crater to fill it in.
There is also the frozen Arctic hinterland of Kirovsk, originally a forced-labor camp, which is chronically in the running for the title of world’s most-polluted city because of the Twelve Apostles — the dozen belching smokestacks of the nickel-smelting operation that blot out the sky — and Lake Mercury, “a man-made lake of industrial runoff whose silvered waters are so veined with exotic chemicals they lap against the gravel-pocked banks year-round, unfrozen even in February.”
The landscape of Marra’s work is an indelible part of the stories he tells and in so many ways inseparable from the characters he creates. Here, though, a landscape is very literally part of the story: “Empty Pasture in Afternoon,” a landscape painted by Chechen artist Pyotr Zakharov in 1843, together with the physical landscape depicted in it, serve as two of the many threads binding together the stories of Tsar.
(It’s instructive to understand how much of the backdrop of these stories is nonfiction, and a glance at Marra’s list of references underscores the point. Many of Zakharov’s works were destroyed or badly damaged when the Grozny art museum was shelled, and work continues on their restoration.)
The opening tale, “The Leopard,” is set in 1937 Leningrad and thrusts us immediately into the through-the-looking-glass insanity of Stalin’s communist purification. His purges are in full frenzy, as we learn from lead artistic censor Roman Osipovich Markin, whose workload of erasing enemies of the state from photos and paintings is growing exponentially in a country where the slightest suspected infraction earns the accused a prison sentence, deportation, or death.
Markin is practicing his own quiet subversion by replacing the faces of those he expunges with that of his brother, Vaska, whose arrest and death Markin failed to forestall. What causes Markin’s eventual downfall is not his very first insertion of Vaska’s face into that same Zakharov painting, or any of the hundreds of subsequent images he paints of Vaska from boyhood to old age. Rather, it is his refusal to fully excise the image of a ballet dancer he does not even know.
If “The Leopard” sets the stage for everything that comes after, the second story, “Granddaughters,” serves as a kind of Greek chorus to bridge the space between then and now, to explain what we need to know, and to introduce, directly or indirectly, virtually every other character in the collection.
From it, we grasp that Markin’s dancer was the prima ballerina for the Kirov before her arrest and deportation to Kirovsk, but what’s important is that she becomes “Galina’s grandmother.” Galina — beautiful, shrewd, lucky enough to make it big — is at the center of everything, though we only ever see her reflected through the lens of other characters.
With Marra, every detail holds meaning. The only question is: For which of these characters will we most ache, for whose redemption most yearn? It might be Ruslan, the former deputy director of the destroyed art museum, whose home and family are part of Zakharov’s ruined landscape. Possibly it is Vaska’s grandson Sergei, whose mere existence is Markin’s great triumph, but who fails even at becoming a proper drug addict.
If we listened to that Greek chorus of six breezily disloyal lifelong friends bound together in the wasteland of Kirovsk, we’d be prepared to dismiss Galina’s sweetheart, Kolya, as a two-bit hoodlum/soldier on whom she’s squandering herself. Don’t be fooled. Kolya is the one.
In fact, almost every character holds surprising depth, even Kolya’s big, lunk-headed fellow soldier, Danilo, who is forced to confront the lie that has sustained him and his entire army unit for ages. “His red eyes radiate substratum pain, an ache so deep and unyielding that Kolya witnesses it as a geologic event.” Every one of these characters is fully human. They are pricked and they bleed.
It’s also somehow disconcerting to be reminded that not everyone sees Vladimir Putin as a bad guy. “When the KGB man won the presidency in 2000, we celebrated…When our children read aloud that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century we nodded and told them, ‘This is the truth.’”
Truth, as always, depends entirely on perspective, and — fortunately or unfortunately — each of us holds one uniquely our own. The truth here is that Anthony Marra has once again delivered us a gift of heartbreaking warmth, humor, and humanity. Accept this gift.