This is the second book written by Anthony Marra; his first, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was one of my favorite books for that year. Within this collection of short stories is a web that connects the characters. Like his first book, Marra gives Chechnya a key role in the story, as the place Russians must do anything to avoid being sent to or the place that is ravaged by the wars.
Roman Osipovich Markin is the first character we meet. He was a censor in Stalin's time whose job was to paint out the faces of "enemies of the state," like Trotsky ("I've airbrushed out Trotsky so many times that I know him by every mood and gesture, know him with the familiarity of a family member"). He paints in pictures of his brother Vaska who had been executed for "religious radicalism."
There are moments of intense creative pleasure: The dancer's right leg obscures the face of an adolescent in the front row, and in its place I paint a postage stamp portrait of my brother, Vaska, when he was that age. Over the last two years I have inserted him into hundreds of photographs and paintings. Young Vaskas. Old Vaskas,. Vaskas in crowds, listening to Lenin. Vaskas laboring in fields and factories. He hangs on the walls of courthouses, ministries, schools, prisons, even the NKVD headquarters, where if you look closely you will see Vaska glaring at Yevgeny Tuchkov, the man who made him disappear.
Roman was told in advance that his brother would be arrested and did nothing. And Vaska's son Vladimir bears some responsibility for Roman's eventual fall from grace. Betrayals are answered by the next generation of betrayals in more than one instance. Near the end of the book the son and grandson of Vaska turn up with a surprising connection to others.
Contrasts are everywhere in this book. There is Roman who betrayed his brother and honored him by painting him into countless pictures to be discovered in the distant future. And there's Kolya, the drug dealing killer who becomes one of the most beloved characters. The locations include the completely devastated Chechen city Grozny, and the beautiful, if ordinary, nearby hillside which still perfectly matched the painting of it done by a 19th century Chechen painter (Pyotr Zakharov whose story in Wikipedia is itself pretty amazing).
In one story the narrator tells about changes that came in the later times (after Gorbachov). The young people read Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, they wore black market Levi's and traded rib records, bone music, skeleton songs. These were banned fifties and sixties rock and roll inscribed by phonograph onto exposed X-rays that could be played on gramophones. Just recently I heard a story on the NPR (here) about this practice or I would have assumed this was fiction.
At times I found the stories too grim to bear, the ironies too impossible. And yet the characters are drawn with tenderness and love. How is it that this young author (born in 1984) who grew up in Washington, DC and went to private school there can write so convincingly of such lives?
One character, Ruslan, a scholar, was given the job as Head of the Grozny Tourist Bureau, because he spoke English, had experience in the hospitality industry (had been a bellhop at age 16), and had no history of human rights abuses.
Over the following weeks, I designed a brochure. The central question was how to trick tourists into coming to Grozny voluntarily. For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston. From them I learned to be lavishly adjectival, to treat prospective tourists as semiliterate gluttons and to impute reports of kidnapping, slavery, and terrorism to the slander of foreign provocateurs. Thrilled by my discoveries, I tucked a notebook into my shirt pocket and raced into the street. Upon seeing the empty 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 wildlife! The city bazaar hummed with sales of looted industrial equipment, humanitarian aid rations and munitions suited for every occasion: unparalleled shopping opportunities at the Grozny bazaar!
I am confident this will be in my top ten this year. It is an intense and moving book.
Anthony Marra, The Tsar and Love and Techno, Hogarth, 2015, 352 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries.