Leningrad, 1937: Roman, an artist who needs to eat, has become an expert in air-brushing “enemies of the people” out of photographs. One of his earliest subjects is his own brother, an unrepentant devotee of religion in Stalin’s atheist communist state. As an act of resistance—atonement? compensation? revenge? even Roman isn’t sure—the artist paints his brother’s face into every other image he doctors. The head of a party boss added to a nineteenth-century painting, the face of an unknown worker in the background. It becomes his signature, his legacy. Then Roman is asked to air-brush out a ballerina accused of espionage for a foreign power. But the ballerina looks like his sister-in-law, and Roman can’t bear to erase his family twice …
Thus begins Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, a collection of riveting interlocked short stories that ramble from the Arctic Circle to Chechnya and from the 1930s to the present. Along the way, we get a clear sense of a world crumbling under the impact of communism and its collapse: literally crumbling, in the ruins of Grozny and the nickel mines of Kirovsk, a former prison camp where “the falling snow was tinged with color depending on what had been in the furnaces the previous day: the red of iron, the blue of cobalt, the eggy yellow of nickel” (63).
The format of the book draws from a mixtape given to Kolya, one of the recurring characters, by his younger brother. A genuine Maxell cassette, a rarity in the late years of the USSR, the tape accompanies Kolya to war in Chechnya and back to the nickel mines. Its presence sustains him in his darkest hours. The book, too, is a literary mixtape, with Sides A and B and a long Intermission at its center. It’s wonderfully complex and wonderfully complete, posing questions to which the reader suddenly perceives the answer five stories later. The language is both beautiful and stark, the characters simultaneously sympathetic and severely, even irreparably flawed.
Given my interest in Russian and Soviet history, it will hardly surprise followers of this blog that I found myself drawn to Roman and his compatriots. I requested The Tsar of Love and Techno initially for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview, and I still regret that the interview never took place. It was scheduled for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and I suspect the timing doomed it. So I decided to write this blog post instead. If you have any curiosity about the last years of the USSR and the post-Soviet consensus, up to and including Vladimir Putin, this book is for you.
Expect to see more posts like this one. Despite the occasional scheduling problem, New Books in Historical Fiction—and the New Books Network in general—have been growing rapidly in popularity, and I now have more books being sent to me than I have hours available for interviews. A lovely place to be, I admit. So when a podcast interview doesn’t work out for whatever reason, I will be shifting some of the coverage here—as I did last week with Bernard Cornwell’s Warriors of the Storm. On the Friday after International Women’s Day (March 8; the Friday is March 11), for example, I will feature Fall of Poppies, a new collection of short stories by women about love and the Great War. There are so many fantastic books. It’s a privilege to have the chance to comment on as many of them as possible, and I look forward to sharing those comments with you.
That said, I must confess that I will soon be adding another book of my own to the massive piles of available reading material. One more editing pass for style and consistency, and The Swan Princess goes to typesetting. And just to whet your appetite a little, I’ve pasted in two of the early reviews below. Stay tuned for the release date!
“Lyrical and compelling, The Swan Princess draws the reader into the world of sixteenth-century Russia, a world unfamiliar to many readers, which becomes vividly real in the hands of this master storyteller. The characters of Nasan, Daniil, and the others leap off the page. Perhaps most intriguing is the portrayal of the clash between the two vibrant but alien cultures of the Russians and the Tatars—frequently at war, occasionally bound by an uneasy and watchful peace.” —Ann Swinfen, author of Voyage to Muscovy
“An action and suspense-infused historical adventure that kept me turning the pages right to the end. The characters are so well-drawn, the historical facts so cleverly woven into the narrative, time and place so brilliantly evoked, I felt I was experiencing sixteenth-century Russia firsthand.” —Liza Perrat, author of the Bone Angel Trilogy