I can’t even review this book. Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno was the best and most beautifully written book that I’ve read all year. I read it in two days because I couldn’t even fathom the telling of it. This is what they miss in school. Stalin becomes a distant relative to Hitler and we associate him with mass killings, but the lives, the singular stories of people are just as important, if not more so, than people en masse. For the students, like myself, who need a similar wrinkled hand to grab while they study history, this was that lifeline, those who needs to know the small details to make the big idea come through, The Tsar of Love and Techno is for them.
In this book, we understand the white noise of terror. The leash kept tight by Stalin. The delicate hands of a censor on the face of a ballerina accused of Polish espionage and his eventual downfall from the stubbled whisper of a school boy who met him only once. We miss the recitation of a memorized Polish confession by a man who had to be taught Polish in a cell in order to confess to his crime. A woman’s face is left a half-formed thing when flames burn through Grozny paintings. A love between two high school children is left at the peak of a waltz without a name. The boy falling into a well during war and expected to plant a garden as his torture and the girl, a winner of a beauty contest and the fourteenth richest man in Russia.
In this Soviet Russia, a grandmother opens her home to the drug trade, only to find her daughter’s body a vase of alcohol abuse and loud secrets. A boy saves himself from war by a bullet to the knees. A little brother retells the story of a love that could have been infinite if it wasn’t built on so few expectations.
I don’t believe in this sort of storytelling, until every once in a while a book just takes all my beliefs and crushes them under the soul of storytelling. When a book goes from writing to art. Anthony Marra had me highlighting whole pages of text because I couldn’t just hold onto the idea in a sentence. The stories are interwoven in surprising and generous ways. Marra wrote not only for the throb of a story, but for the beat of a reader. Artificial forests shedding rusted leaves, second rate movies, mix tapes, and a painting connect the people in these stories to one another through time and place. Horrors are sketched as simple gestures that dimple out.
In a story consumed by labor camps, prison, drug lords, young men with guns, contract soldiers, mail-order brides, and octogenarians that swim in waste water, a reader would expect no glory, no real heart, no deep gut. However, this story gives the reader everything. It leads the dance. I was both fascinated and raptured by this story collection and I hope one day it’s read in schools, the way a history is unwrapped by the very people who watched it back.
I’ve never studied Russian. I couldn’t, without a little help, find all these places on a map. Siberia has always seemed like a cold place where the worst criminals are sent and leopards are the top of the food chain. (Thanks, Discovery Channel). Stalin is only referenced as a “Hitler,” and like I tell my students, in Russian stories for your End of Course Test, everyone always dies. The extent of my education on Russia is poor at best. Anthony Marra has dropped a stone in the water.
He doesn’t ask forgiveness to break your heart. He doesn’t question his ability to balance floral plates and land mines. He doesn’t ask you to weep, but you will because there is no other contest that is closer to a sunset than this book. I think it should have won every award. I think I can’t possibly write a book now because this one already exists, it’s been put out in the world like a question mark. What is love and how is it shown? How do we know what we’re meant for when we haven’t even found ourselves yet? Where exactly is one found when they’re in inescapable wilderness? Russia is a place I will visit many times over if Anthony Marra is telling the tale.
This review isn’t even….it just… there’s no way that this book can be reviewed in a capsule when it is the galaxy.
Lovers sign their names in the bark of a forest tree. One woman claims she hears stories from the trees. Pocahontas treats her holiest tree like a grandmother. One can argue that the strongest symbol in Anthony Marra’s interwoven short story collection The Tsar of Love and Techno is the winter forest, subsidized by the government because some mob boss’ wife wanted the foliage. The trees made of metal (nickel like the town mines) have leaves that have fallen, rusted at the forests edge. This forest represents, like most forests, the white terror of Soviet Russia. A static at the edge of all thoughts, all movements, and all ideas, that white noise of a silence where every single human waits for the interruption.
This is a book for things that we aren’t taught in schools. I remember brief mentions of Stalin only in relation to Hitler, but in these stories he is the unavoidable hunter. A school boy can share secrets that get his Uncle shot. A woman can be careless with her kitchen and her daughter can be killed in a drug ring. A couple is separated by war and a beauty contest. A young woman loses herself in a painter’s fields, another loses half of her face in the gusts of fire that stem to tear down those very fields. A man, left lonely by love and mixtape, spends nights in a well, and mornings in a garden planting herbs.
In a world where the people against you are removed from photos by pencil stubs and the hands of a delicate censor. Where one hand of a ballerina is the “follow me to” of disaster. Where only one man is allowed to be “followed” and even then, no sheep can stray. Where one boy finds a bullet in the knee better than facing a war in Chechnya. “The bullet passed through my knee. I don’t know how long I lay there before I crawled to him, and he lifted me into his arms and whispered, ‘You are alive. You are alive. You will not die.”
I’ve never felt closer to characters. I’ve never confused my boyfriend so much by trying to explain to him the plot of any book. Marra must have a wall dedicated to the plot and linked moments in this story. This was the most beautifully written book that I’ve read all year, hands down.