By: Emily Weber
I feel as though Anthony Marra is playing a trick on us by making Russia so funny and bizarre and colorful in this little novel of stories. The Tsar of Love and Techno begins with Leningrad in 1937 and takes us all the way to St. Petersburg in 2013, and spoiler-alert our settings of Russia/Siberia/Chechnya are not happy places during this era. But Marra crafted this book full of colorful and dynamic characters—totally fleshed out and unique in voice and style even though we only get to spend about 20 pages with each one of them—that makes their somber setting a magical and almost science-fiction-y place to be, full of Cosmonauts and ballerinas. As Russian as vodka, if I can say.
The Tsar of Love and Techno gives a wonderful little history of Russia pre- and post- Communism for all the nerds out there, too. The interconnected stories and the framing of the novel’s time period gave me a new insight into Russian history that I’d never given much consideration before. What We Think About When We Think About Russian History? For me it’s the post-WWII/Red Scare Russia that is featured. I hardly ever think about the people who came after Stalin and Pravda, and especially not about the teenagers in St. Petersburg in 2001 learning English from Biggie and Tupac and dreading their conscripted service in the brutal Chechnyan War. You never hear about that unless you’re reading Marra.
Marra gives us so many stories, and with them new perspectives: an artist-turned-censor working for Stalin to scratch the faces of embarrassments-to-the state from history; the granddaughter of a famous Siberian ballerina who becomes (for a relatively short time) Russia’s biggest movie star, a mail-order-bride returning to Kirovsk after her divorce, Kolya (Just wait until you get to this part. I just can’t even), and finally the complex and tragic story of Sergei Vladimirovich whose dread for war will probably stick with me forever.
And so this should have been a sad book. But it’s so sharp and weird and full of “your-mom” jokes between war prisoners, and really alien assumptions about an America the characters could never really know, that it leaves the reader with this overwhelming impression that this was a funny book. You would never expect it, but then again, Marra’s read his Dostoyevsky.
Part of the light-heartedness comes from the structure, I think. The book is structured like a mix-tape (though I find it reads more like a novel than “Stories” would lead me to expect) and you can find the soundtrack Marra made for it here on Spotify. It takes you from The Nutcracker Suite to Cut Copy. Check this shit out. And the novel knits together very well. Marra uses some devices to get him through this multi-character, multi-time-period structure that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but for this one I think it works.
All in all, the book is short and it reads quite quickly. Anthony Marra is 31 years old, he got his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and I’ve never found anyone who can bring Chechnya to life for a Midwestern American woman like me. Strongly recommend this one, and his first A Constellation of Vital Phenonmenom.
Related books you might enjoy:
Brother Karamazov — I hear you’re supposed to read the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation but it’s the only one I’ve ever read so I can’t compare it to anything.
All of these books, and The Tsar of Love and Techno can be found at Next Page Books in the New Bohemia district of Cedar Rapids.