A National Book Award junkie who reads all 10 books on the fiction long list, I thought Anthony Marra’s first novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," should have won when nominated in 2013. That book about the tightly intertwined lives of Chechens during two recent wars took its title from a definition of life in a Russian encyclopedia.
The nine stories in The Tsar of Love and Techno are like an astronomical constellation, a looser pattern, a Great Bear that connects Russian characters raised far from the Caucasus with Chechens, including several characters from the author’s first novel. "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" was distinguished by Marra’s "Catch-22" humor and tough-love empathy, extended even to betrayers and collaborators in the region’s perpetual war. Because Chechens have been “victims of absurdism” since the Stalin years when they were removed from their lands, it was fairly easy for Marra to gain readers’ sympathies. In "The Tsar of Love and Techno" he accomplishes the more difficult task of understanding and eliciting empathy for the Russian invaders of Chechnya, both the conscripts and volunteers for whom possible death in the Caucasus appeared a better life choice than imprisonment in the Siberia to which their forebears had been exiled before World War II.
I hasten to say readers need no special interest in Eurasian subjects to find Marra’s fiction compelling. Although displaced by particular historical circumstances, his characters stand in for the 60 million people that the United Nations says were refugees worldwide in 2014. But "The Tsar of Love and Techno" is not a propagandistic work that wrings out readers’ anger and pity. Because his stories shift settings, times, and perspective, Marra discourages too close an emotional identification with any one point of view and creates some aesthetic distance from which readers are invited to consider and reconsider characters’ behavior.
A major attraction of these stories is plot. Unlike short fictions by many of Marra’s young American contemporaries – stories in which little happens except the characters’ thinking about what doesn’t happen, – Marra’s works are like older-fashioned tales, in which characters cross landscapes, perform physical actions, charge into or try to avoid life-or-death combat. Frequently the actions are betrayal, sometimes for self-preservation, occasionally out of altruism, even at times accidental, so action is rarely without interesting moral and psychological ambiguity. And action in one story frequently has consequences in another story removed either in setting and or in placement in the collection, consequences that may revise readers’ feelings about what at first seemed good, bad, wise or foolish. The ultimate effect is double suspense: how will Marra’s characters’ lives turn out, how will the author complete his skipping-stone structure.
The first two stories offer a good example of consequences at a distance. In “The Leopard,” the setting is 1937 Leningrad where a Russian censor named Roman Markin airbrushes from official photos persons whom the Soviet state wants purged and, in some photos, replaces the erased faces with variations on the face of his brother, who was executed by the state. “A failed painter,” Markin is also asked to insert the image of a Russian functionary into a landscape painting by the Chechen artist Pyotr Zakharov. Markin obeys but is eventually betrayed by a family member – though for something he didn’t do.
The next story seems unrelated, for it jumps forward to 2013 and outward to Kirovsk, a grotesquely polluted mining town in Siberia, where old women gossip about Galina whose grandmother was a ballerina and who, we find, was one of the figures that Markin disappeared from history after she was sent to the Siberian gulag. As if to compensate for her grandmother’s erased image, Galina becomes a beauty queen. She then betrays her lover Kolya after he is drafted in 1995 for the first war in Chechnya, is taken up by the 14th richest oligarch in Russia, and visits Chechnya where she accidentally discovers the Zakharov painting of the meadow that happens to be where Kolya died in 2000. The experience turns her into a dissident and eventually gets her photoshopped out of publications just as her grandmother was airbrushed away by Markin in 1937.
The circle is not closed, though. “The Grozny Tourist Bureau” tells of Galina’s visit from the point of view of the former deputy director of the Grozny museum, a Chechen named Ruslan who has been reduced to a tourist guide but keeps in his apartment the Zakharov landscape after it was damaged by an attack on the museum. Another failed artist, he has restored the painting and replaced the Russian functionary with images of Ruslan’s wife and daughter, who were killed in the same meadow where Kolya died. For generous reasons I shouldn’t divulge, Ruslan allows Galina’s rich boyfriend to buy the painting for her.
Like a line drawn from one star to another star in a constellation, the book moves on to the circumstances of Kolya’s death in “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which “replaces” tales of the same approximate title by Pushkin and Tolstoy with a more realistically plotted and sometimes vulgar account of why Kolya is far from his Siberian home and how he is being used by his Chechen warder to restore the mined meadow to the pristine state depicted in the painting that Roman Markin corrupted in Marra’s first story.
Displacement, disappearance, replacement, restoration – these are the themes, along with betrayal, Marra dramatizes and links across space and times. His metaphor for what I’ve called his “constellation” form is “mixtape.” The protagonist and narrator of the title story is Kolya’s brother Alexei, an amateur Russian DJ who puts together a mixtape for Kolya when he leaves to fight in Chechnya. That story exists alone in a section entitled “Intermission.” It is preceded by a section entitled “Side A,” the four stories I’ve described, and followed by “Side B,” also composed of four stories. In this central story, Marra offers a new view of Kolya, whom the earlier grandmothers described as a “hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame.” As a teenager, Kolya protects his adolescent brother when they witness a murder outside of the “poisoned post-apocalyptic hellscape” of Kirovsk, and later Kolya protects Alexei again by bribing officials so he can avoid the draft and enroll in a university in St. Petersburg. There, years afterwards, Galina gives Alexei the Zakharov painting that he uses, in a later story, as a guide to visit the exact place where Kolya died.
The more Kolya emerged as Marra’s central character the more I found the painting, as both connective device and symbol of destroyed innocence, to be a rather distracting artificial element of "The Tsar of Love and Techno" – as art was in "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" where three of the main characters create visual replacements for dead people or destroyed settings. I know that a constellation is an artificial or arbitrary construct, but when lives, rather than stars, are being linked in a fiction, the pressure for plausibility increases. The Zakharov painting figures in yet another story in “Side B” (“A Temporary Exhibition”), but Marra wisely connects (and disconnects) the remaining three stories without the device.
“Wolf of White Forest” presents Kolya’s life in Kirovsk between the two Chechen wars. Without work and Galina, he gets involved in the heroin trade, commits a violent crime, and signs up the next day for a second tour in Chechnya. “Palace of the People” takes place in St. Petersburg in 2001 and is told by the censor Roman Markin’s grandnephew, who learns from a legless beggar a desperate way to avoid fighting in Chechnya. The final story, “The End,” is unlike all the other fictions – an “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” piece that “records” the last milliseconds of Kolya’s life in highly poetic language very different from the mostly colloquial and slightly ironic style of the preceding stories.
Given “The End,” along with the other stories about Kolya, "The Tsar of Love and Techno" seems mis-titled, directing attention to Alexei the mixmaster – unless Marra wants to suggest that Alexei, a student of philology who refers to Babel and Nabokov, is actually responsible for writing all the stories, the whole mixtape of quite different “songs.” This possibility is supported by the language of “The End” which is too rich, too learned, to come from the purported narrator, the spottily educated Kolya. If Alexei has written all the stories, Marra has cleverly ratcheted up his replacement theme, for Alexei has restored in mixed art lives erased or damaged by politics. This meta-level even includes Zakharov because he was known in the 19th century for his portraits of Russians (and, as far as I can tell, never painted the landscape attributed to him in the book).
In "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," Marra employs what might be called bardic omniscience. The author knows the distant pasts and future fates of his contemporary characters – as if the novelist were a Homer of the Chechens. The point of view he employed was unusual for contemporary fiction but functioned well to bind together seemingly separate lives. By contrast, the stories in "Tsar of Love and Techno" are told from multiple points of view: first-person plural (“Granddaughters”), first-person singular, and third-person objective, all appropriate for their situations. But with the Zakharov painting and some coincidental meetings, Marra tries too hard to unite his disparate materials and replicate something like the connective omniscience of the novel. Fiction by an American about non-English-speaking cultures must avoid stereotypes while establishing concrete authenticity to gain readers’ confidence in the author’s knowledge of unfamiliar others. Although Marra’s individual stories are for the most part persuasive in their realism, he sacrifices some believability in the whole with his desire to create an intricate connect-the-dots form. His artist characters insert figures who don’t belong into Zakharov’s painting. At times, Marra inserts the painting into situations where it belongs only because of the novelist’s fiat.
I happen to have read recently two story sequences like Marra’s – Jay Cantor’s "Forgiving the Angel" and Richard Ford’s "Let Me Be Frank With You." The stories in these books are more consistent in texture and quality than Marra’s, but I again hasten to say that, at barely 30, Marra also has some stories in "The Tsar of Love and Techno" that equal individual works by the older, more experienced fiction sequencers. The title story is impressively specific about the horrors and amusements of brothers growing up with an eccentric father above the Arctic Circle. “Granddaughters” is a tour de force of the plural, communist voice both celebrating and resenting the individual star Galina. “Wolf of White Forest” is a twisty tale of family betrayal passed from one generation to the next. My favorite, “The Grozny Tourist Bureau,” has the combined wit and compassion of the best pages in "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." Here is Marra’s former museum deputy on his new job as Tourist Bureau chief:
"The central question was how to trick tourists into coming to Grozny voluntarily. For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston. From them I learned how to be lavishly adjectival, to treat prospective tourists as semiliterate gluttons, and to impute reports of kidnapping, slavery, and terrorism to the slander of foreign provocateurs…. Upon seeing the empty space where an apartment block once stood, I wrote wide and unobstructed skies! I watched jubilantly as a pack of feral dogs chased a man, and wrote unexpected encounters with natural wildlife! The city bazaar hummed with the sales of looted industrial equipment, humanitarian aid rations, and munitions suited for every occasion: unparalleled shopping opportunities at the Grozny bazaar!
I admire the artistic conscience Marra displays in "The Tsar of Love and Techno," his equitableness and commitment to present the dead-end lives of Russians who gained nothing from the Soviet collapse and ended up in Chechnya. I enjoyed seeing characters develop through plots and appreciated some of his formal ingenuity, but I think the collection falls a bit short of "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." That book didn’t receive the National Book Award but did win a National Book Critics Circle prize for best first book of 2013. Now that Marra has written a companion to the novel and explored the lives of both ruled and rulers in the Caucasus, I hope he will move on to a different subject that will profit equally from his ability – unusual in a writer so young – to imagine others far from their homes and far from his.