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American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Prize for Fiction, 2015
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in Fiction
Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Books of 2015
Praise for The Tsar of Love and Techno:
“[E]xtraordinary… Each story is a gem in itself. But the book is greater than its parts, an almost unbearably moving exploration of the importance of love, the pull of family, the uses and misuses of history, and the need to reclaim the past by understanding who you really are and what really happened…He starts this miracle of a book by showing us how a system can erase the past, the truth, even its citizens. He ends by demonstrating, through his courageous, flawed, deeply human characters, how individual people can restore the things that have been taken away. And if you’ve been worrying that you’ve lost your faith in the emotionally transformative power of fiction – Mr. Marra will restore that, too.”
-Sarah Lyall, The New York Times
“Remarkable…Marra is a gifted writer with the energy and the ambition to explore the lives of characters whose experiences and whose psyches might seem, until we read his work, so distant from our own. Reading his work is like watching the restoration — the reappearance, on the page — of those whom history has erased.”
-Francine Prose, Washington Post
“This book will burn itself into your heart. It’s a collection of interlocking short stories that stand alone but also fit together, piece by delicate piece, to form an astonishing whole whose artfulness becomes increasingly clear as it goes on. The Tsar of Love and Techno swoops around in time and place, beginning in Stalinist Russia and ending somewhere in outer space in the near future. It’s funny, moving and beautiful, the perfect thing to read.”
-New York Times
“Audacious… [an] ambitious and fearless [book], one that offers so much to enjoy and admire...Marra’s far-ranging, risky and explicitly political book marks him as a writer with an original, even singular sensibility.”
-New York Times Book Review
“Genius...what makes this (dare I say) masterpiece so stunning is Marra’s clear love for his subject and insistence on infusing beauty into even the darkest places…It’s nothing short of extraordinary.”
-San Francisco Chronicle
“Powerful…[an] ingenious book."
-Wall Street Journal
"Marra’s nine stories, cunningly set out like strewn mosaic tiles that keep self-rearranging until they cohere into a complex, cathartic whole, demand to be read in order...Marra here emerges with an oxygenizing wisdom and an arsenal of wit as inexhaustible as it is unlikely.”
“Dazzling… with its multiple narratives and recurring characters it certainly recalls both Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad" (a novel) and Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge"(short stories). By the time you reach Marra's astonishing final story about Kolya, "The End" — set, a dateline tells us, in "Outer Space, Year Unknown" — the book has achieved a heart-rending cumulative power.”
-Tom Beer, Newsday
“Like Nabokov, Marra is a writer for whom essential truths are found in detail… The nine interlocking stories grip from the off with their dry tone and meticulously realised worlds of totalitarian life and its aftermath. Characters appear, disappear and reappear throughout the collection, graceful as a troupe of dancers in the author’s assured hands.… His stories have subtle nods to the Russian greats (Chekhov’s gun, the lady with the lapdog) and more overt echoes of the writing of Kafka and Orwell in the tales of totalitarian living.”
-The Irish Times
"Private acts of dissidence (a smuggled mix tape, say) become heroic in Anthony Marra's era-spanning portrait of the USSR."
-Megan O'Grady, Vogue
“Cobbled together as a sort of mixtape itself (with four stories under “Side A,” four under “Side B,” and a single-story intermission), Marra’s latest work is tender, touching, haunting at times and humorous at others—in short, a feat.”
-Thomas Harlander, Los Angeles Magazine
“The Tsar of Love and Techno is inventively structured, emotionally resonant, superbly rendered.”
-Jane Ciabattari, BBC.com
“The Tsar of Love and Techno is an intricately structured and powerful collection[and] showcases Marra’s wit and his gift for unforgettable details…The Tsar of Love and Techno is the work of an elegant and generous writer.”
"Some books are love at first read, and this is one of them. Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, delivers his first collection of intimately tied stories (it kind of reads as a novel, actually), arranged into Side A and B and Intermission. With language as precise as a razor blade, Tsartakes us throughout Russia from 1937 to the present with a connected group of characters who, through their explosive escapades, demonstrate the peculiarities and nuances of life. It has everything: humor, action, suspense, drama — I'm going to go ahead and call it brilliant."
-Meredith Turits, Bustle.com
"Marra, in between bursts of acidic humor, summons the terror, polluted landscapes, and diminished hopes of generations of Russians in a tragic and haunting collection."
"With generosity of spirit and a surprising dash of humor, these artfully woven narratives coalesce into a majestic whole."
-Library Journal (starred)
“Powerful…strikingly reimagines a nearly a century of changes in Russia. [T]he book’s brilliance and humor are laced with the somber feeling that the country is allergic to evolution."
-Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“As in his acclaimed novel, Marra finds in Chechnya an inspiration for his uniquely funny, tragic, bizarre, and memorable fiction.”
-Publishers Weekly (starred)
"Love and betrayal reverberate through these nine deftly linked stories... With this collection, Marra has created a stunning portrait of a place and its indelible inhabitants."
-Dawn Raffel, More
“We know we are in the realm of fiction, but Marra makes it all feel viscerally real. He has mined modern Russian history for all it is worth to create a masterful novel.”
-Russian Life Magazine
“Treat yourself to these wise works of art set in Siberia, the USSR, and the heart.”
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
I am an artist first, a censor second.
I had to remind myself of this two years ago, when I trudged to the third-floor flat of a communal apartment block, where my widowed sister-in-law and her four-year-old son lived. She answered the door with a thin frown of surprise. She wasn't expecting me. We had never met.
"My name is Roman Osipovich Markin," I said. "The brother of your husband."
She nodded and ran her hand along the worn pleat of a gray skirt as she stood aside to allow me in. If the mention of Vaska startled her, she hid it well. She wore a blond blouse with auburn buttons. The comb lines grooving her damp dark hair looked drawn on by charcoal pencil.
A boy was slumped into the divan's mid-cushion sag. My nephew, I supposed. For his sake, I hoped he took after his mother.
"I don't know what my brother has told you," I began, "but I work in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. Are you familiar with the job?"
"No," the boy said. The poor child had inherited his father's forehead. His future lay under a hat.
To his mother: "Your husband really didn't talk about me?"
"He did mention a brother who was something of the village idiot in Pavlovsk," she said, a bit more cheer to her tone. "He didn't mention you were balding."
"It's not as bad as it looks," I said.
"Perhaps you could get to the purpose of your visit?"
"Every day I see photographs of traitors, wreckers, saboteurs, counterrevolutionaries, enemies of the people. Over the last ten years, only so many per day. Over the last few months, the usual numbers have grown. I used to receive a slim file each month. Now I receive one every morning. Soon it will be a box. Then boxes."
"Surely you haven't come only to describe the state of your office?"
"I am here to do my brother a final service," I said.
"And that is?" she asked.
My vertebrae cinched together. My hands felt much too large for my pockets. It's a terrible thing, really, when said aloud. "To ensure that his misfortune doesn't become a family trait."
She gathered every photograph she had of Vaska, as I asked. Nine in total. A marriage portrait. A day in the country. One taken the day they moved to the city, their first act as Leningraders. One of Vaska as a boy. She sat down on the divan and showed each to her boy for a final time before bringing them to the bedroom.
She arrayed them on the desk. Her bedroom was mainly bare floor. The bed still wide enough for three, the blanket neatly pulled over a flabby mass of pillows. She must have only shared it with her son now.
I slid a one-ruble coin across the desk, hammer-and-sickle side up.
"What am I to do with this?"
I nodded at the photos. "You know what to do."
She shook her head, and with a sweep of her forearm that sent a small galaxy of dust motes into orbit, she winged the coin to the floor.
Could she have still loved my brother? Hard to believe. He'd been proven guilty of religious radicalism by an impartial and just tribunal. He'd received the only sentence suitable for a madman who poisoned others with the delusion that heaven awaits us. Paradise is possible only here on earth, possible only if we engineer it. One shouldn't envy this woman's blind devotion to a man who has proven himself unworthy of love. One mustn't.
She pressed her palms over the photographs, threw her elbows out to shield the images with her broad back, an instinct that suggested a starving creature protecting her last morsels, and this may be true: The stomach is not the only vital organ that hungers.
"Leave," she said, a ragged edge to her voice. She stared at the back of her hands. "Leave us be."
I could have turned, walked out of the room, closed the door on the whole affair. I'd done more than was required already. But something kept my heels pinned to the floorboards. Even though the concept of family was slipping into history as swiftly as the horse and carriage, I didn't have a wife or child of my own, and I wanted someone who shared my blood to live to see that paradise we've given ourselves to achieve. I wanted that little fellow out there on the divan to grow up, to become an active builder of communism, to look back on his life when he is a fat and happy old man, to know that the faultless society surrounding him justifies his father's death, and then, to be grateful for the lesson taught by the uncle he briefly met on a cold winter morning a lifetime ago.
It's silly. I know.
I grabbed her wrist and pinched the coin between her fingers.
"I'm not here to hurt you," I told her. "I'm here to make sure you don't get hurt. Your husband was an enemy of the people. What do you think will happen if NKVD men search the flat and find all these photographs? Must I go into greater detail?"
Whatever naked sentiment splayed itself across the table recoiled within her. She kept hold of the coin when I let go. That coin could have bought a meat pie, a sketch pad, a confectionary, a bar of soap; pressed into someone else's palm it could have become the bright spot in a dull day, but coins cannot choose their fate.
"Why can't you do it? You're the artist. This is your job."
I checked my watch. "I don't begin work for another hour."
When I heard the slow scratch of the coin on photo paper, I turned away. In the living room, the boy sat quietly peering at the thin lines etched upon his palms.
It was uncanny how much he resembled his father. A nose he hadn't yet grown into; a messy thatch of black hair, each follicle aimed in a different direction; lips pursed as small as a button. I would have been eight when Vaska was his age. Summer days we roamed the forests and fields, and at night we tapped coded messages to each other through the wall between our rooms; we each had our own. I made him sit for me in every shade and season of light so that I could sketch his likeness, could preserve his expression in charcoal on the page. If not for Vaska, I would have never become an artist. His face was my apprenticeship.
"Do you speak?" I asked.
"With understatement, I see. Tell me your name."
I clasped his shoulder and he flinched, surprised by the sudden gesture of affection. He shared his first name with Lenin--an auspicious sign.
"I want to see if you can do something for me," I asked. "Are you willing to try?"
"Stare straight at me," I instructed, then I flashed my fingers by his ear. "How many am I holding up?"
He held up four fingers.
"Very good. You've got keen eyes. Someday you might be a sharpshooter or a watchman. I'm going to tell you the story of the tsar and the painting. Have you heard it?"
The coin scratching in the bedroom might have been wind rustling leaves; we might have been far from there, near a dacha, in a field, the sun burning just over our heads.
"No, I didn't think you would have," I said. "It begins with a young man who overthrows an evil tsar. The young man becomes the new tsar. He promises his subjects that their troubles will disappear if they obey him. 'What will this new kingdom look like?' his subjects ask. The tsar considers it and then commissions his court painters to paint a picture of what the new kingdom will look like.
"First the painting is only a few paces wide, then a few dozen paces, then hundreds of paces. Soon the painting is miles and miles wide. Now, this is a big painting, no? Raw materials are essential to its success. The flax that would have clothed the tsar's subjects is requisitioned for the canvas. The wood that would have built houses is requisitioned for the frame.
"When the subjects are cold, the tsar tells them to look at the painting and see the beautiful coats and furs they will soon wear. When they sleep outside, he tells them to look at the painting and see the beautiful homes they will soon live in.
"The subjects obey the tsar. They know that if they turn their eyes from the painting and see what is around them, if they see the world as it is, the tsar will make them disappear in a big poof of smoke. Soon, all his subjects are frozen in place, unable to move, just like their reflections in the painting."
The boy stared with a bored frown. He must have been accustomed to excellent storytelling. Literature for children receives less attention from the censors than literature for adults, so naturally our best writers flock to the genre.
"How many fingers am I holding up?" I asked.
He put up three.
I slid my hand farther into his periphery. "How many now?"
He put up one.
He began turning his head, but I snapped. "Eyes ahead. Just like people in a painting can't turn their heads to see who's behind them, neither can you."
"I can't see how many fingers," he said. "Your hand is too far back."
"That's right," I said. "That's where your father is. He's there, painted in the background, back behind your head, where you can't see. He's there, but you can never turn to look."
The coin scratching had silenced some time ago. When I looked up, the boy's mother was standing in the bedroom doorway. I followed her in. The photographs were lined neatly on the desk. In each one, a single face had been so violently scratched out that the desk's wood grain was visible through the hole. My eyes ached to see it. I closed them.
"Get photographs of your son every year," I advised. "If you're arrested, he'll be placed in a state orphanage who knows where. With a recent photograph, you'll have a better chance of finding him."
I was already at the door when she grabbed my wrist and turned me around.
"You're not finished," she said. "You owe my husband more."
"This is the best I can do."
Her hand was on my neck. The boy just sat there, across the room, watching with dark, dumb eyes. What did he see when he saw me? You remain the hero of your own story even when you become the villain of someone else's. His mother's chest indented on my forearm.
"You're in the party," she insisted. "Do something. Move us somewhere."
"I correct images. That's it."
"Then what more can we do? Tell me. When they go into an orphanage you never find them."
Her eyes were webbed with pink and her hands cupped my cheeks, her middle fingers tucked under my earlobes. There was something foreign in the hard, dense heat of her breath on my face. I couldn't recall the last time someone had breathed on me, nor the last time I had felt needed.
"You prove your loyalty," I said quietly. "That can work. In my own experience it has worked."
She looked to the boy, then took my hand. She led me past him, toward the bedroom, toward the bed still wide enough for two. All I wanted was to get out, to be rid of these people. Even so it was a relief to see that she would take her dead husband's brother to the bedroom, a relief to know that the boy might live to become that fat and happy old man because his mother understood, as his father never had, that it is not God or gravity but grace of the state that holds us upon the earth.
I shook my hand from her grip. She turned, uncertain. I leaned toward her, so the boy wouldn't overhear.
"You prove loyalty through betrayal." The words traveled no farther than the length of a little finger, from my lips to her ear. "You inform on someone close to you. This is what I know works."
Two years have passed since that morning. A month ago the department requisitioned my small office. A mean sense of humor, if little else, has filled the vacancy between my superior's ears: He has assigned me to continue our necessary work underground. Several hundred feet underground.
I bid the sky farewell and climb down. Amid dim electric bulbs, I imagine myself contracting within shadow, becoming Caravaggian. No matter how early I arrive, the workmen are already here: laying rail track, reinforcing tunnel cement, never raising their wary eyes to mine. I enter a sawdust swarm and on the other side emerge at the door of what will be the stationmaster's office.
Maxim, my assistant, has beaten me here. The worktable is already prepared with nozzles, cylinders of pressurized air, paint, sealed directives, and stacked files of uncorrected photographs.
Our Younger Stalins cabinet stands in the corner. It holds photographs of our vozhd taken ten to twenty years ago. When possible, we substitute a Younger Stalin for current ones. It's essential we convey to the people the youthful vigor of their elder statesman. The longer we do it, the further back in time we must go to find new material. Readers of certain periodicals may worry that he is growing younger with each passing year; by his seventieth birthday he will be a slender-faced adolescent.
"You're late, Comrade," Maxim says, speaking of slender-faced adolescents. The day we met, when the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation first assigned him as my assistant, was the last day he saluted me. He sends letters praising the party leadership with the hope that the police will intercept, read, and record his expressions of loyalty. He makes no secret of wanting my post.
"I'm old, Comrade," I say.
Maxim, the little brute, nods in agreement.
By lunch we have corrected by airbrush three faces from a 1930 Foreign Trade Committee portrait that has been retouched so many times it's more painting than photograph. Or I should say, I have; Maxim contributes only cigarette smoke and a sour smirk. While concentrating on the face beneath my airbrush, I glance up to find Maxim concentrating on mine. The little brute couldn't erase pencil lead.
We lunch alone. Maxim stays in the mercury-vapor brightness of the office, while I wander through the tunnels. I have walked for hours through these tunnels and have found no end to them. Someday trains will carry the grateful citizens of a socialist paradise through this netherworld. All the work we have done here in their name will then be justified. --This text refers to the paperback edition.
- ASIN : B00RKO3UOM
- Publisher : Hogarth; Reprint edition (October 6, 2015)
- Publication date : October 6, 2015
- Language : English
- File size : 5172 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 332 pages
- Lending : Not Enabled
- Best Sellers Rank: #171,495 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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A marvelous book in many ways, but a difficult read. It starts as Gulag Archipelago and ends as a James Joyce prose poem. Kirovsk is as foreign (and as fascinating) as Malory’s Arthurian stories. So much substance, extraordinary description, so many finely-drawn characters make it a pleasure to read. “Besides, in Kirovsk the line between crime and business is as slender as an orphan’s forearm” gives the flavor of a Russian proverb. Descriptive language like “bass loud enough to put the beat back in a stopped heart” resonates with anyone who has lowered his car window on a sunny day. And his characters’ observations are so piquant: “What my father lacked in education, he made up for in opinions.”,“Hipsterdom’s a tightrope strung across the canyon of douche-baggery. He hung by a finger.” I read this for the pleasure of the words.
That said, it’s a difficult read. I think that’s related to the fact that it’s a collection of short stories. The good part of ‘difficult’ is the fact that Marra is an accomplished short story writer, and like all good short stories, his ‘chapters’ are very dense. This is not a read-it-all-night-to-find-who-done-it kind of book. No wasted words, no fast reading, no skipping. That’s the way good short stories are. But you need to breathe between chapters … maybe for a day or so. The second issue is that, as the stories are sewn together, they violate the novelist’s rule: at the beginning of a chapter, reader needs to know time, place and people. Here, time is not linear … Marra lets us know that with a writer’s crutch: leading dates. Characters change from chapter to chapter. Reader eventually figures out the relationship … the uncertainly is Marra’s intention, no doubt … but it makes it hard to pick up the through-line of the story. When I finished, I wished I had drawn a family tree or two.
All in all, a delightful book.
Billed as a collection of "interconnected stories," Tsar's short stories sprawl across the century and follow various characters as they careen in and out of each other's lives (sometimes without realizing it) in Soviet Russia. My personal favorite stories were "The Leopard," "A Prisoner of the Caucasus," and "Wolf of White Forest." However, the highlight of Tsar is watching how each of the independent stories connect and influence each other like a multi-faceted jewel or 3D puzzle.
Top reviews from other countries
Beginnend mit dem Catch-22-Dilemma, dass man seine Loyalität zur Partei nur unter Beweis stellen kann, wenn man seine Disloyalität gesteht, spießt Marra mit nadelspitzer Feder die tödlichen Krankheiten dieses unsinnig riesigen Landes auf, vom stalinistischen Staatsterror im schönen Leningrad der Dreißiger Jahre über das Umweltinferno im fiktiven*) sibirischen Kirowsk, weit nördlich des Polarkreises, bis hin zu dem nicht ganz so vaterländischen Krieg, den die Russen mit den Tschetschenen ausfechten. Dazu Korruption, Kriminalität, Altersarmut usw. usf., dazu zuverlässig eine Regierung, die sich stets um Wichtigeres zu sorgen hat als das Wohl ihrer Bürger.
Und auch wenn diese nicht viel zu lachen haben, dann der Leser umso mehr: Es ist eines der seltenen Bücher, bei denen man immer wieder laut losprusten muss, ohne Hohn, aber mit viel Sympathie für die bedauernswerte, sich über 80 Jahre und drei Generationen verteilende Belegschaft dieser Tragikomödie. Ein Feuerwerk von Onelinern, Galgenhumor als letzte Ausfahrt vor dem Abgrund. Zwar habe ich mich gelegentlich gefragt, ob es einem Amerikaner eigentlich zusteht, ein Land, das er nur von Besuchen und aus Büchern kennt, derart schonungslos aufs Korn zu nehmen, doch das Resultat gibt Anthony Marra recht. Ein Russe hätte das auch nicht besser hingekriegt, und selbst der Lupenreine würde schließlich unterschreiben, dass wer kann, der darf.
*) Nicht das Kirowsk auf Kola, da nördlich von Nowosibirsk gelegen
Com uma narrativa que alcança desde 1930 até além do presente, na URSS, Rússia, Chechênia e no espaço sideral, Marra constrói um livro polifônico que tem sido classificado – inclusive pelo seu editor – como uma série de contos interligados, mas chamar assim parece diminuir o esforço do autor em criar uma constelação de personagens cenários e situações conectados por uma fina teia. Pode-se dizer que The Tsar of Love and Techno é um romance descontruído, trazendo em sua forma exatamente o seu tema: desmantelamentos.
O primeiro deles, é claro, é o da União Soviética. As tramas vão e voltam no tempo tentando dar forma a uma experiência histórica pautada pela desconstrução. Nada mais sagaz do que mimetizar isso na forma, na fragmentação dos “contos” que, se num primeiro momento, parecem aleatórios, com o tempo armam um arranjo preciso sobre encontros, desencontros, traições e acertos de contas.
Não há um protagonista único, senão talvez o fluxo da história ao qual ninguém é impune. Vemos diversos personagens em momentos variados – ora protagonistas de suas histórias, ora coadjuvantes de tramas centradas em outros. Há também um quadro de uma paisagem pintado no século XIX, numa região chechena, que atravessa décadas de mãos em mãos, e também essa mesma paisagem é um cenário recorrente aqui.
Organizado como uma mixtape – com lados A e B, e um intervalo – TTOFT, ao investigar a vida pós-soviética na região se estrutura como diversas pequenas repúblicas semi-independentes, mas sua capacidade de conectar os personagens é a graça que os salva (e nos salva) do isolamento. Pontas que parecem soltas, já no primeiro “conto”, serão conectadas apenas no final – que, aliás, é contundente e profundo.
Seus personagens são figuras infelizes e fracassadas (embora nem sempre se deem conta disso), como uma ex-mis-ex-estrela de cinema, casada do 14o (rumo ao 13o posto) homem mais rico da Rússia; ou um sujeito que no meio de um vilarejo todo contaminado cria o Museu do Espaço Sideral e do Espaço Interno; ou seus dois filhos – um pequeno traficante, grande amor da vida da miss, que acaba exatamente naquela paisagem chechena do quadro, quando em sua segunda participação num conflito acaba capturado; ou seu irmão que lhe deu uma mixtape antes da guerra, e agora tenta encontrar o que aconteceu com outro -, ou, por fim, uma moça cega com o rosto desfigurado por uma mina, o que a obrigado a abortar sua pesquisa sobre o artista e censor do primeiro “conto”. Esses são apenas algumas das figuras que povoam esse grande romance, e cujas vidas são ditadas pelo movimento da História
O livro começa com a seguinte frase: “Primeiro sou um artista, um censor depois”. E o personagem é realmente as duas coisas, e talvez simbolize em si o destino de todo artista – o de fazer escolhas, optando por algumas coisas, e “censurando” todas as outras que não conseguirão ver a luz do dia em sua obra. Dessa maneira, Marra fez escolhas – e não poderiam ser mais acertadas.