Covering nearly a century, The Tsar of Love and Techno tells the story of Russia through interconnected short stories that culminate into one of the best books in years.
There are some books that demand to be read, but The Tsar of Love and Techno demands to be dissected, devoured, and appreciated. To put it bluntly, Anthony Marra’s short story collection may be one of the best books I’ve read in my entire reading life. Short story collections are often hit or miss for me. While there were strong stories in Kelly Link’s Get In Trouble, their underlying connection wasn’t as satisfying. On the other hand, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad floored me with its grasp of time and place. Anthony Marra masters that concept and more. Not only does he have a grasp of time and place, but how the characters exist in those two dimensions.
Each story can be read individually and be effective, but when read as a whole it is completely satisfying. The Tsar of Love and Techno tells the story of Russia from 1937 until now. And while it’s very based on character, Russia itself is the most dynamic and interesting part. I’ve never been attuned to the history of Russia nor its society outside of the present day. However, Marra paints a vivid portrait of its history by following these characters within it. From poisonous lakes to its oppressive government to state propaganda, these things are just a fact of life. They fade into the background to give way to the characters and their interactions and lives with these staples.
The opening story “The Leopard” is an incredible exercise in the power of a talented writer. Anthony Marra gently paints a picture of a time, a place, and a person that feels complex and deep in a slight fifty pages. Not only that, he takes the main character through a satisfying emotional journey that feels neither rushed or incomplete. At the center of the story is a retoucher for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation, Roman Markin. His job is to erase people from history both literally and figuratively by removing them from photographs.
While “The Leopard” on its own is a phenomenal short story, The Tsar of Love and Techno comes to life as a collection when the subtle connections between the stories are revealed. The connection between the first story and the second, “Granddaughters,” is a blink-and-you-miss-it-line. When you realize it, though, its significance carries incredible weight. These connection continue throughout the story often unexpectedly. Some are more significant than others. But all of them carry the same emotional baggage.
“The Grozny Tourist Bureau” is a witty story about the former director of the Grozny art museum becoming the head of the nonexistent tourist bureau. It’s easily the funniest story of the collection. Though turning a war-torn city into “the Dubai of Chechnya” doesn’t seem the ripest for comedy, Marra has a handle of black humor that permeates through the entire collection. Of course, the story comes with a surprising profoundness and yet another piece of the puzzle revealed.
The title story, “The Tsar of Love and a Techno” is the only story told in the first person. And while it is not as satisfying as the others, it is certainly the most entertaining. More importantly, it represents a turning point in the story. Not only does it bring several storylines crashing together, it gives us a point of view we’ve never seen before: a person that lived as they wished.
But what is it about? That’s the question you always ask when it comes to a short story collection. What makes it more than a random grouping of interconnected stories? Well, for The Tsar of Love and Techno, it’s the idea of retaining the past. What happens when we are gone? Who is left? What is left? Who will remember us? How are we remembered? Are we figures in a painting or a frame with no canvas? Are we the center of a cautionary tale or the hero? No, we are remembered by the people who cared about us. The people who loved us.
In the final few pages of the book, we take a journey that all of us will take, but none will be able to describe. However, Marra articulates his take on it in beautiful prose that acts as the perfect cap to a near perfect book. He understands what he was trying to say. And in a few pages, he says perfectly. He reminds us that someone will remember you.