The rule: if you happen to have been born in the west, never attempt to write a novel about Russia because you’ll get it wrong. For too long, English-language attempts at plumbing – in fiction – the depths of the Russian mystique have resulted in some patently awful genre writing that typically features a silly pastiche of stereotype, cold war harrumphing, and sloppy melodrama. Non-fiction writing isn’t much better, filled with cold dismissals and neatly rationalized characterizations of a place, an ethos, and a people so adept at nothing so much as the avoidance of characterization. The beauty in the ruins, the solar flares of artistic brilliance erupting out of such impenetrable dark, the brutality softened by moments of the most gripping humanity, the shambles that leads to indescribable acts of sacrificial generosity: these are what we miss when we seek to make sense of Russia. The lesson to be learned is that in attempting to understand the vastness of the place and the colossal heart of its people, we must allow the paradox to stand, the inconsistency to be the greatest consistency. The beauty and the shit all in the same pile – as it will be to the end of the age.
What Anthony Marra gets so astonishingly right in his luminous “The Tsar of Love and Techno” is this paradoxical Russia. He tells stories here, among others, of the moral dilemma faced by the Soviet Union’s most celebrated photograph censor in 1937, and his subversive art rendered in the hope of keeping memory alive; the existential torture of a former Miss Siberia – the krasavitsa granddaughter of a feted Bolshoi prima ballerina – destined to escape and eventually return to the mining town that spawned her; the tenderness of a girl for whom eye surgery would mean so much more than mere sight; and the sacrifice of a solider in Chechnya that makes art history. No matter the setting, Marra draws these characters with extraordinary sensitivity, their circumstances with startling authenticity.
One brief preview. The eponymous "Tsar of Love and Techno" story marks the midpoint of the book deals with the residents of Kirovsk, and the occasion on which the locals, as the Soviet Union crumbles around them, finally, in defiance of decades of ordinances and prohibitions, have decided to go for a collective swim in their town’s toxic lake.
“A man with a mustache as wide as his waistline, whom all the world had nicknamed Walrus, took his first tentative strokes, marveling at the cool rush against his skin, the freedom of movement, and began weeping right there in the water for the countless times he had given up hope, the countless times he had prayed for death in the mines, in the prison camp, and now, now gratitude cracked him open, and he thanked God for ignoring his prayers, for letting him live long enough to learn to swim.”
I cannot read this passage without tears, weeping along with the Walrus: perhaps because he could be one of my neighbors. Perhaps because I have witnessed moments of the kind of unrestrained and unrestrainable catharsis of joy from people whose entire lives have been lived largely in its absence. So why should we care about the pathetic inhabitants of this failed state? If we have the grace to accept it, the real Russia is that close to each of our hearts. Or it need be.
And for Anthony Marra from Oakland, California and who broke the rule of writing about Russia I have only one word: Mirabile.
The book is structured as nine stories with interrelated characters and settings, and spanning the years 1937 – 2013, and beyond. Highly recommended.