I’ve now read two of Anthony Marra’s books, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and The Tsar of Love and Techno. Both are not only moving but also darkly funny. Someone once said that humor is a way of writing about serious matters, and Marra proves this saying to be true. He has chosen an area to write about whose inhabitants have been long-suffering. But somehow they manage to find specks of light in the soul-destroying darkness they inhabit.
While A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is an official novel, official in the sense that it focuses on a handful of characters and is plotted, The Tsar of Love and Techno isn’t one. Instead, it’s a collection of linked stories that roam from the 1930s to the present and even beyond. Yet, Marra has so skillfully woven together these individual narratives that the work is as satisfying to read as a novel because the characters form part of a closely-knit network. By the end of the book, the narrative comes full circle so that the offspring of individuals encountered in the first section or two appear.
Consequently, one feels that this world had coherence and depth. There is violence and tragedy, but there also are family connections that somehow manage to survive just as the characters somehow manage to live through difficult situations.
In a scene where Kolya, the elder of a pair of youthful brothers is protecting his younger sibling from an assassination they have stumbled onto and are secretly witnessing in White Forest, the condemned man’s eyes happen to meet those of the younger brother’s. The man’s mouth is sealed with tape, but he tries to warn his killers about the boys’ presence: “He’s trying to warn them,” Kolya muttered disbelievingly. “He’s trying to warn the people about to kill him” (164). The killers didn’t pick up on what their prisoner was trying to say, but when one of them pulled the trigger to finally shoot their target, “nothing sounded but a hollow clack” (164). The condemned man ended up needing to show his murderers how to properly load the gun so he could experience his proper ending.
This kind of incestuous interaction is a major theme in The Tsar of Love and Techno. Victim and transgressor are so painfully intimate at times, it’s difficult to know whom to root for. But as a reader, I always was rooting for Marra, whose skill and wit give a new definition to the word “tsar.”