The Multitudes: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Last year at a Selected Shorts reading, Salman Rushdie told the captivated Symphony Space audience, “Literature begins at the level of the sentence.” It is suggestive of a more minute and intimate approach to writing. It’s perhaps the best way to quantify the work of Anthony Marra, with his turns of phrase and the way he can upend your expectations in a single sentence. While A Constellation of Vital Phenomena illustrates this beautifully, Marra’s mastery of the sentence is more apparent in his new short story collection, where with less space, the construction of the sentence becomes even more crucial.

The Tsar of Love and Techno continues the themes of Marra’s novel, an interwoven narrative containing multitudes beyond what is written on the page itself. Each character has a past, present, and future, and while Marra doesn’t zoom out of the moment to reveal a glimpse of the character’s future, like he did in Constellation, the future is unveiled in a later story.

While The Tsar of Love and Techno is primarily set in the nickel mining camp-turned-community Kirovsk, “a hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle” where “the moon belonged to the past,” Chechnya looms over the narrative through the presence (and absence) of a “minor work” of 19th century Chechen artist Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets. Not much is to be found on the artist online, least of all the painting Marra focuses on, Empty Pasture in Afternoon. But perhaps this is appropriate since the story collection begins with a Soviet art censor in 1937.

“I am artist first, a censor second,” begins Roman Osipovich Markin, and with that, we are plunged into the oxymoronic world of Stalinist Russia, where Kafkaesque bleak humor lives. An example:

Last July I had the opportunity to correct one of my own paintings, a scene of the October Revolution oiled a decade ago, in 1927. Amind an ardent proletariat uprising, I had mistakenly included the figures of Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamensev, who couldn’t have been there, not after having been proven perfidious in a recent public trial. I replaced our villains with our hero; Stalin was there, is there, is everywhere.

“One is so rarely given second chances,” he dryly concludes. But as in any repressive regime, a step outside of protocol, or even the initial undetected flirtation with it, has deadly consequences. It is not the insertion of Roman’s traitorous brother Vaska into the paintings — such as Empty Pasture in Afternoon — which lands him in an isolation cell. It is his failure to completely obscure a prima ballerina from a portrait, leaving only her hand held aloft. Of course he must be a collaborator with her! the guards and officials inform him. To prove his guilt of plotting with Polish spices — and prove his loyalty to the USSR by confessing — Roman must be taught Polish by a former children’s teacher who can only legally teach Polish to suspected dissidents in the Kresty prison.

But it is Roman’s supposed betrayal of the Party of the People that unfolds into the eight remaining stories, each held together by the common thread of Zakharov-Chechenets’s painting, or the actual dacha and pasture portrayed in the painting: from Galina, the awkward and ungraceful granddaughter of the Roman’s censored ballerina to her first boyfriend, the heartbroken soldier-turned-gangster-turned-soldier-again Koyla; to the blind art restorer Nadya and her uneasy lover Ruslan, the deputy director of the Grozny Museum of Regional Art; and finally, to the the outer edges of the solar system.

Like Constellation, the characters of The Tsar of Love and Techno are often thrust into difficult and absurd situations, where the rules are never obvious, where improvisation is required for survival. And while the outlook seems bleak — and quite often in fact is — Marra’s work strives to illuminate the connections between people, good or bad, in the past, present and beyond, that signify our common humanity. He succeeds, brilliantly.

Click here to read an interview with author Of The Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra.

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