tl;dr Anthony Marra has written some of the most gorgeous prose I’ve ever read, and he has used it to craft a stunningly beautiful story.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to think of Anthony Marra’s second book. The title was a bit quirky and was, in and of itself, a decent conversation starter. (I mean, look at that technicolor cover!) But I was sucked in immediately. The Tsar of Love and Techno is a series of short stories about different characters living in different eras (pre-World War II to present day) and different places (Chechnya, Siberia, Soviet Russia, modern Russia) and the larger story that these individual stories link together to tell. If you like novels like Cloud Atlas, then you’ll definitely love The Tsar of Love and Techno, which expertly and smoothly weaves the different characters and their stories together.
This might strike some of you as odd, but I’m a bit of a sucker for Russian history and culture. Maybe this stems from my childhood obsession with the amazing (incredible, awesome, spectacular) animated musical Anastasia, but it has persisted to this day. (Please see this manifesting during my trip to St. Petersburg several years ago.) This was such a great way to explore how life changed for these people between the Soviet Union era, the Cold War, modern day, and everything in between. We look at war in Chechnya and a mining town in Siberia. We look at artists and dancers and high school sweethearts.
Longtime readers will know that I value character relationships above everything else when it comes to telling a story, and a movie/book/TV show is immediately weakened by weak character dynamics. TLT has really wonderful relationship dynamics between the characters. Within each individual short story, the character relations are compelling. What I was most impressed with, however, was the indirect relationships between characters were also really well-done. Characters who never have conversations or any face-to-face interactions with each other — whether they were separated by decades, geography, or by existing in different stories in the book! — are still able to profoundly affect each other. It is these beautifully crafted indirect relationships that threads the different stories of TLT together and make it one coherent story.
To give you an idea of how the book flows, I’ll share how it is broken down as written:
The Leopard (Leningrad, 1937)
Granddaughters (Kirovsk, 1937-2013)
The Grozny Tourist Bureau (Grozny, 2003)
A Prisoner of the Caucasus (Chechen Highlands, 2003)
The Tsar of Love and Techno (St. Petersburg, 2010; Kirovsk, 1990s)
Wolf of White Forest (Kirovsk, 1999)
Palace of the People (St. Petersburg, 2001)
A Temporary Exhibition (St. Petersburg, 2011-2013)
The End (Outer Space, Year Unknown)
I loved every single one of these stories. We start with a party censor, a trained artist who begins to paint his brother’s face at different stages in his life into photos and paintings that he has been asked to censor. We end with this surreal trip through time and space as a soldier thinks about his love for his brother and his first girlfriend. (You saw that chapter title above, right?) Honestly, in that final story, Marra is flexing his penmanship, showing off his way with words. The Tsar of Love and Techno draws to a close with some of the most exquisite prose:
If ever there was an utterance of perfection, it is this. If God has a voice, it is ours.
The calcium in the collarbones I have kissed. The iron in the blood flushing those cheeks. We imprint our intimacies upon atoms born from an explosion so great it still marks the emptiness of space.
Another chapter that I appreciated more by the end of book was “Granddaughters”. It is a judgmental third-person telling of other people’s stories that influenced how I perceived the characters it was talking about when I finally met them in other stories. However, as a reader, I soon discovered that the perspective in “Granddaughters” was not very accurate, and the power of how that kind of bias hurt those characters, both in my eyes and in how their environments treated them. I have honestly never felt myself interact and connect with a story this way before, where I am able to view the story both as the characters and as the unfair forces working against them.
I’m so glad that I saw Christine’s review for this book, as that was what convinced me to get it myself. I have been fervently recommending this book to everyone who asks (or doesn’t ask). Honestly, I closed this book and had to take several deep breaths because I was so blown away by the quality of the language in this book. I hugged my book to my chest, closed my eyes, and digested the feeling of just having read something GOOD. Anthony Marra took these words and painted such a masterpiece with them. I honestly felt privileged to read it.
Will you read this book? The correct answer is yes but no pressure.
Have you read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra’s New York Times bestseller?
What would you recommend I read next? I have been eyeing Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words to start but am definitely looking for more books to read!
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.