With “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” Anthony Marra’s debut novel, we met an unbelievably sophisticated writer who chronicled the two Chechen wars with equal parts humor and pathos. In “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” Marra returns to war-torn Russia and beyond. Many of these interconnected stories take place in the gloomy, vividly drawn Siberian town of Kirovsk. The landscape is charred, arranged around the production of violence in hardscrabble industry. Ash from nickel mines dusts the snow. Locals swim in Lake Mercury, a man-made concoction of “industrial runoff ringed by gravel.” Not only that, but the Chechen wars “made the republic among the most densely mined regions in human history. … Roughly, one [land mine] for every two Chechen.”
Characters and objects spill from one story to the next. “Leopards,” the opening story, set in the tunnels of Leningrad in 1937, follows Roman Markin, a retoucher for Stalin’s Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. Roman is set with the task of brushing up Stalin’s cheeks and blotting out the condemned from newspaper photographs. On one job, charged with editing out a ballerina, he inexplicably leaves her hand to dangle in the air and pockets the picture.
We learn of the ballerina’s fate in “Granddaughters,” a story told in the first-person plural, which tracks the briefly serendipitous life of the ballerina’s granddaughter, Galina. Galina goes from awkward goose to beauty contest winner, movie star and, finally, wife of a powerful oligarch.
In the title story, Galina is the object of Kolya’s high school affection. In “A Prisoner of the Caucasus,” Kolya is captured by the rebel army and, after spending a few nights in a body bag at the bottom of a well, is chained to his comrade, Danilo, while they plant an herb garden outside a picturesque dacha. “Whatever life-preserving instincts evolution endowed him with have been war-blunted to an amused disregard for all mortality, particularly his own.”
Marra deftly handles this amused disregard with a dark humor that adds a necessary buoyancy to an otherwise bleak range of stories.
Objects play an important role, too. A mix tape, photographs, paintings — they appear and reappear, retouched, damaged, redacted. Each possessor’s deepest yearnings are often best understood by their relationship to these objects.
“The Tsar of Love and Techno” is compassionate, erudite and measured, beaming with a great panoply of distinct voices. If there are any flaws in these tales to begin with, Marra, like the retoucher, has brilliantly rebuffed them into exquisitely crafted portraits — and they’re well worth the price of admission.
Josh Cook writes for Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review, the Millions and elsewhere. He lives in the Twin Cities.