The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra is a linked collection of short stories set in less glamorous parts of Russia.
I’m not exactly sure where, someplace far from Moscow, around Chechnya, I think. One of those cities built by Stalin to hold political exiles and their families. Enough people moved in and stayed long enough to bring about a semblance of home, a place to be from.
The stories are all linked by setting, by character, by time, by theme, by enough elements to make them just about, nearly, almost a novel. Not quite, but nearly.
I liked the humor in many of the stories, a dark Russian sense of humor much like the humor I’ve found in Gogol, Chekov and Dostoevsky. You can see it, I think, in the opening line of the first story, “I am an artist first, a censor second.”
Many of the stories are very funny, that way. One “story-line” features two brothers who grow up in their father’s home-made space museum. Their town has a slight connection to the Soviet/Russian space program, not enough to warrant a government-funded space program, but enough that they boy’s father can find enough relics to fill a small warehouse. They give a few stray visitors tours but spend most of their time navigating their way through the drug trade and avoiding the draft which would certainly send them to a tragic end in Chechnya.
I liked the space museum stories; I liked most of the stories in The Tsar of Love and Techno but I’m not sure I liked the book. There’s one bit featuring a gangland execution that takes place inside a false forest made up of trees that are really cell-phone towers. This false forest has been around so long that it has developed its own eco-system, one that is threatened in a later story when a developer wants to dismantle it. A group of eco-activists have organized to protest the destruction of the fake forest.
That’s pretty funny, too.
But the jokes began to wear thin by the end of the book, or maybe the stories just became more serious. Or maybe it was the setting. Laughter can be a powerful weapon against the bleakness of life, but it can lose its power over time. Run out of ammo.
By the end of the book, things were starting to get to me. Everybody had such a sad, circumscribed life. They survived, but they had little reason to live. I won’t argue that this isn’t true to life, but it’s not true to every life. By the end of the book, I wasn’t laughing anymore.
2 thoughts on “The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra”
It’s so interesting to hear that Marra is an author that can do humor. I loved his first novel but there aren’t a lot of laughs in it. Maybe he used some of these stories to test out his comic abilities and he’s still finding his feet since they didn’t all work for you. I’d still be interested to read it at some point because I think he is a very good writer.
Humorous in a Russian way. I wouldn’t say there were “laughs” in it, some very funny stuff, but Russian humor is kind of specialized if you know what I mean. You have to know where to look for it, sometimes.
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