The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and TechnoI read Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book club a few months back and it was such a surprisingly awesome novel that I absolutely had to snap up this follow-up. More of Marra’s Chechnya? Extra Russia? That cover? I was sold.

This novel is one of those fancy linked-short-stories books, where the stories could conceivably be read on their own and still make sense, but where the combination of the stories makes everything so much better.

The first story was, for me, the strongest in that stand-alone sense. In it, the main character is a Russian art censor whose job it is to “fix” paintings so that people who shouldn’t be there, people who are non-entities, are no longer in those paintings or that people who should totally obviously be in paintings can take their rightful place. His story opens with a trip to his sister-in-law’s house to get her to scratch her dead husband out of some photographs and to impart some wisdom to his nephew, and then later centers on his poorly thought-out half-censorship of a painting of a prima ballerina. You can’t censor by halves, it turns out, and the story shows us just what exactly happens to people accused, rightly or wrongly, of treason against Russia. It is a fascinating and moving story, and I could have read just that and been happy.

That’s not to say that the rest of the novel wasn’t excellent, but that the rest of the stories in the novel rely heavily on references to the other stories to get their heft and depth across. After the censor’s story, we move on to the story of the prima ballerina’s granddaughter, and to the stories of people in the village where the granddaughter grew up, moving forward and backward in time to pick up the history of that corner of Russia (near Scandinavia) and of Chechnya. It is an incredibly bleak history, but it has its delightful moments, most especially finding out that the Chechen president used to have an apparently amazing Instagram account, with photos of him and various adorable animals. Why did I not know this when I could have followed it??

On the whole I quite enjoyed this novel, if enjoyed is the right word for all that depressing awfulness. The characters are interesting, the story is intriguing, and the writing is absolutely gorgeous. But still the book lacked whatever qualities made me love Constellation so hard and so it suffered by comparison. It’s still definitely worth a read, but maybe lower your expectations first?

Recommendation: For fans of Marra, Russian history, and books that will give you feels, but not too many.

Rating: 8/10

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis is kind of a difficult book to talk about, as I and my fellow book clubbers quickly found out when we sat down to talk about it. But it’s the good kind of tough to talk about, where all the stuff you want to talk about is, like, “Look what the author did here! Isn’t that cool?”

Cool thing number one: The core part of the narrative takes place over a five-day span in 2004, telling the story of a young Chechen girl whose dad is disappeared by Russian soldiers and whose neighbor takes it upon himself to find her a safe place to stay before the soldiers come back for her. Havaa, the girl, and Akhmed, the neighbor, make their way to the place Akhmed thinks is most safe — a hospital run by a doctor whose name Akhmed once came across. That doesn’t sound terribly safe to me, but we soon find out that this situation is the least of everyone’s worries.

Cool thing number two: In between pieces of the main narrative, the author jumps back to various points between 1994 and 2004 to talk about the history of the characters, of Chechnya in general, and of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia. He puts in just enough information that you understand why things like the Landfill exist and are so awful, but not so much that it feels like a history lesson. There were a couple of times I found myself reaching to Google to, say, remember where Chechnya is in the first place, but that was more because I was curious and had Google at hand than because of any confusion.

Cool thing number three: The author leaves the narrative at points to remark on things that the characters don’t yet or can’t possibly know, like what their parents felt about certain things or what will happen to them in the future. Sometimes these bits help put events in perspective, and sometimes they help to show how this limited narrative fits into the larger world. Either way, they prevent a terrible horrible epilogue and I am indebted to the author for that.

Other cool things: The characters are all “real” in that none of them are entirely good or entirely bad, even the ones who are really really super bad. Almost all of the characters interact at some point during the novel, but none of these interactions ever seem forced. There is, in my copy at least, a little Q&A with the author that is one of the few actually interesting Q&A’s I’ve seen.

I said when I got to book club that I thought the novel was really good, really well written, but that I wasn’t sure if I could say that I liked it, exactly, what with all the bleakness and desolation. That may still be the case; I’m not ready to go out and buy a copy to foist on anyone. But I do think it’s fantastically written, and I will be talking it up to other book nerds.

Recommendation: For book nerds of the sort who like a well plotted, tightly woven novel. Also people who want some sneak attack history.

Rating: 9/10