Nearly a month after reading The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, I am still thinking about what made me uneasy while reading it. The nine interlinked stories themselves are a fabulous artistic achievement. Set primarily in Russia’s far north and far south, an Arctic mining center and Chechnya, they range back and forth across Soviet and post-Soviet generations, giving readers portraits, actions and repercussions in ordinary lives of the larger events of Russian history. Marra captures both the absurdities and the hideous choices that people surviving Stalinism faced: a censor wonders whether his new assistant will denounce him to secure a promotion; a ballerina is deported to the far North based on reports that she is involved with a Polish conspiracy to overthrow Bolshevism, once there, she finds that the camp director will see that she gets extra rations if she lends him her talents and herself; a teacher of Polish instructs political prisoners in the language, so that they may use it for their confessions in show trials.
Closer to the present, he shows Russian soldiers in Chechnya just trying to get by in a war none of them believe in, their superiors more concerned with creature comforts and skimming money than anything else. There’s a portrait of growing up in a small, isolated city, familiar to anyone who wouldn’t be kept down on the farm, but with the specific attributes of heavy industry in a climate that’s barely amenable to human habitation. A girl falls in with a man who will become an oligarch, catapulting her to heights of unimaginable wealth, landing her in a gilded cage.
The links among the stories are another fine aspect of Marra’s art. People and objects recur, showing the same events from different perspectives, or tracing themes in Soviet and Russian history. The recurrences never felt forced to me, but they are, I think, part of my unease. As vast as his stage is, the work felt small, self-contained, a tightly wound counterpart to the cassette tape shown unspooling wildly on the book’s cover. Small spaces predominate: the censor’s work space, the well in which the soldiers are eventually kept prisoner, the room where a matron counts the money for letting gangsters use her apartment while she is out during the day. Even the book’s most important outdoor space is fairly small: an unassuming meadow in Chechnya, close to but not in the region’s majestic mountains.
The alignment of the pieces, the interlocking lives, the mirroring of places and subject matter all show Marra as an artist in full control of his medium, perhaps remarkably so for someone’s second book. Certainly coincidences of the kind he depicts took place in the periods he is writing about. Practically every gulag memoir I can recall has at least one moment like that — encountering an acquaintance thousands of miles later, or hearing that someone the writer knew had recently passed that way, swept along by the unfathomable tides of Soviet bureaucracy. They’re hardly the solve province of the past, either. Last fall, Marras was a visiting fellow at a Berlin institution not 20 minutes from where I live and work (I missed any public events he may have had); a Moscow friend went hiking in the mountains visible from the Arctic town Marras describes, though I don’t think her group used it as a base. But the collection of alignments suggests an order, a closedness to the kinds of real lives that Marras is writing about that I just don’t think is there. He has polished his stories to a degree that even the ugliness, even the ample tragedies have a certain beauty about them. I think I would have been left less uneasy, would have liked the book even more than I admired it, if it had been a bit more of a mess. It is, to take its structure’s metaphor, a mix tape; I would have preferred a live performance.