This is Marra’s second collection – we haven’t yet read his first, but it’s now firmly on the wishlist – and it’s rich and complex and heartbreaking and funny: all the biggies, guys. The Tsar of Love and Techno is set in Russia and takes us from the 1930s to the present day (and, too, into an imagined, undated future), and from the Siberian gulags to the Chechan minefields and contemporary Petersburg; structurally, it’s a series of linked stories that traces the fortunes (which, spoiler, aren’t typically good) of a group of characters connected, loosely, by a ‘minor work’ by painter Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets. Stylistically, it’s a firecracker – Marra’s narrators are garrulous, opinionated and poetic, making the book endlessly entertaining, and also, given the structure, refreshingly varied, as we move from one section, and voice, to the next.
Roughly: Roman Ospiovich Markin is a censor in 1930s Leningrad; endlessly disconsolate about his role in his brother’s disappearance, he paints the boy’s face into each picture he doctors for the regime. One of those pictures is of a disgraced ballerina; another is Zakharov’s pastoral painting of a Chechan hillside. Galina is the granddaughter of the one-time ballerina; her teenage love is Kolya, a soldier who dies on that same hillside after he’s taken prisoner. Galina hunts down the painting from an art curator turned tourist guide in Grozny, whose wife and child died on the same spot; Galina sells the painting on to Kolya’s little brother, who travels to Grozny to find the field in question. Later, the curator’s lover and colleague writes her dissertation on Roman Markin and his nameless boy; a father and son visit the resultant exhibition and recognise their long-dead relative, Vaska Markin.
It’s a very entangled, but enormously satisfying, book; Marra makes each thread as fascinating as the next, and unpicking the connections between the parts is as rewarding as the prose itself. It’s a text that glories in witticisms and wordplay (self-conscious so, with Kolya’s brother, Alexei, announcing that above all else, he wants to be ‘quotable’, but conceding sadly that you ‘have to be famous or climb Mount Everest or something for people to take you seriously as an aphorist’), but also one that’s unafraid of emotion – the final section, Kolya’s last moments, is a paean to the beloved past and the imagined future, as it soars out to embrace the cosmos and the vast connections that link us to those we love. We were particularly taken by the scope of Marra’s ambition: this isn’t a book about the Stalinist gulags, or the Siberian mining industry and its environmental impact, or the heroin economy that sprung up in its wake, or Communist censorship or capitalist poverty, or the role of art and culture amidst war and chaos, or the Chechan war, or ways to avoid conscription, or fraternal bonds, or lost love, or endurance or betrayal or loyalty or guilt, but about all of these: it’s a little over three hundred pages, but it’s so dense (in the best way) that it feels substantially larger. Kirovsk and its lake of mercury and artificial forest and makeshift space museum; Grozny’s war-blasted streets; the literal airbrushing of history: each section, each paragraph is so evocative, you’ve got to go slowly to appreciate it.
Any Cop?: It’s an enormously accomplished book: difficult to encapsulate, impossible to forget. We’re hoping Marra (an American writer) will get the attention he deserves in the UK with this one.