I’ll admit to having been slightly disappointed when I realized, after already buying this book, that it was a collection of short stories, not a novel.
How silly that seems now. I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything more genuinely hopeful and heartbreaking at the same time. Anthony Marra’s writing is exquisite, and he masterfully gives each story a unique signature.
The first one, a chapter titled “The Leopard,” is set in 1937 Soviet Russia, and follows a man whose job it is to alter history by censoring paintings and photographs. He paints Stalin into depictions of important historical moments, makes him look younger in photographs, and erases all images of agitators and traitors. The man seems to be a strong proponent of both his work and Marxism-Leninism until shortly after his brother is executed for treason. He finds himself painting his late brother as a child, adult, and the old man he will never become into the background of images that he is given to “correct.” Eventually, the censor is also arrested for treason and later executed, though we don’t find out why for many chapters.
The stories then take place many decades later and eventually work their way into the present, introducing a web of interconnected characters that begin with the granddaughter of one of the traitors the censor was tasked to erase from a photograph. As soon as you feel you’ve heard an entire story, Marra opens a new door in the form of another story that builds on what you’ve already read. Many characters are featured in multiple chapters, and when they are, you get the privilege of seeing them from starkly different perspectives. A man who is introduced as the villain in one story turns out to be the hero in another. Actions that seem reckless in one story become relatable in the next. The characters are all given such rich dimension that you find yourself sad to finish one character’s story, only to be pleasantly surprised to find him or her in another.
Marra expertly makes each narrator sound unique, alternating between first and third person seamlessly. In one stand-out chapter, a group of women tell their story collectively as a kind of chorus. The device is unconventional but extremely effective and carried out beautifully. Just the right amount of dark humor is sprinkled in to complement the grim settings.
The overarching narrative here is one of love and history, and how each have the power to break and heal people. Marra paints a vivid picture of the hardships of post-Soviet Russia, and an equally compelling picture of the importance of hope and family.
While the writing, themes, and characters are sublime, pacing is difficult in a collection of short stories, and this was at times a slow read for me. There were naturally some chapters that I enjoyed more than others, and that made the frequent shift of focus sometimes unwelcome.
In spite of this, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a treasure that will resonate and move any reader. Anthony Marra’s writing is a gift, and I highly recommend enjoying it.
4.5 out of 5 stars