‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ by Anthony Marra (2015) – 332 pages
Here is a story of modern Russia with its origins in the old Soviet state. Life goes on, and Anthony Marra captures a lot of it.
‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ is arranged like a homemade mixtape with a Side A, an Intermission, and a Side B. At first the material on the mixtape seems unrelated, but a pattern develops. It contains riffs on Kirovsk in Siberia, Chechnya, and St. Petersburg, riffs on the old Communist oligarchy and the new organized crime oligarchy who took over after Communism fell. The crime team now rules, and not much has changed since the old Communist years.
When Communism fell, the people of Chechnya fought a war and won their independence just like many of the countries in Eastern Europe had achieved. However the organized crime bosses ruling Russia lusted after all that oil money to be made in Chechnya and fought another vicious Chechen War to get it back.
An example of Anthony Marra’s sardonic black humor is the story titled “The Grozny Tourist Bureau”. It takes place in 2003 after the first and second Chechen Wars have left Grozny the most devastated city on earth according to the United Nations. In the 1990s, Chechnya was one of the most heavily mined regions in the world with an estimated 500,000 planted land mines. The Chechnya Museum of Regional Art had been destroyed by Russian rockets, and now the former deputy director of the museum has been named the chief of the Grozny Tourist Bureau. He must now write a brochure explaining the glories of Chechnya for tourists.
“Upon seeing the space where an apartment block once stood, I wrote “wide and unobstructed skies”. I watched jubilantly as a pack of feral dogs chased a man, and wrote “unexpected encounters with natural life”.
Life goes on even in miserable circumstances whether it was in the old Soviet forced labor camps in Kirovsk, Siberia or in the new war-torn Chechnya.
“Kirovsk isn’t that bad, is it?”
It’s a poisoned post-apocalyptic hellscape. “It’s a wonderful place to raise a family.”
‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ is one work of fiction I do not recommend you listen to via audiobook as I originally attempted to do. Many of the sentences in ‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ are too rich and dense with meaning and attitude to be fully appreciated by a casual listen. Here it is best you read the words so you can easily stop, think about them, and fully appreciate them before moving on. Here are typical sentences:
“Whatever life-preserving instincts evolution endowed him with have been war-blunted to an amused disregard for all mortality, particularly his own.”
“But to some people ignorance is a sleeping mask they mistake for corrective lenses.”
Besides, this fiction is so packed with marginally related characters, locations, and plot lines, it is difficult to keep the stories all together while listening.
The stories take place in many locales ranging from St. Petersburg to Kirovsk in Siberia to rural Chechnya to the Chechen capital city of Grozny to outer space.
If I were summarizing the plots of these interconnected stories, it would be as follows. These stories give specific examples of the oligarchy-induced tragedies for the Russian people from the 1930s up until today. From Stalin’s forced labor camps in Siberia to the Chechen Wars and beyond, the misfortunes for the people of Russia have continued.
This is a rich devastatingly well-written novel. I only wish it were more tightly organized. I just feel that a novel this complex should have more than a mixtape structure. Anthony Marra is certainly making some strong statements about modern Russia, but the impact is somewhat blunted by the hodge-podge arrangement of the material.