24 OCTOBER 2018 | KAREN KAO
The Tsar of Love and Techno is a collection of short stories by Anthony Marra that hangs together by the thread of a single painting. Empty Pasture in Afternoon is a landscape purportedly created by the Russian-Chechen painter Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets. The painting is burnt and bombed, restored and defaced, passing into the hands of a Russian oligarch’s wife and right back out. It is the linchpin that keeps these nine stories by Marra from spinning out of orbit or embedding themselves deep into your heart.
The collection opens with “The Leopard”. Its narrator is Roman Osipovich Markin. He calls himself:
an artist first, a censor second.
Markin’s task is to erase the enemies of the Soviet Union. They are, of course, everywhere.
I found offending images in books, old newspapers, pamphlets, in paintings or as loose photographs, sitting in portrait or standing in crowds. Most could be ripped out, but some censored images needed to remain as a cautionary tale. For these, obliteration by India ink was the answer. A gentle tip of the jar, a few squeezes of the eyedropper, and the disgraced face drowned beneath a glinting black pool.
But black stains cannot hide the fact that someone was once there. The disgrace remains. Enter the airbrush. Markin can now erase a man’s very existence. He airbrushes away his own brother out of a happy family outing to the zoo. Markin blends his brother’s feet, stockings and breeches into their father’s trousers.
I was not erasing Vaska but folding him in our father’s clothes, where he would stay safe and warm, his skin pressed to our father’s.
By art and artifice, Marra plunges us into Stalin’s Great Terror. His stories begin in Leningrad 1937 and end some 70 odd years later in the exact same place, only now it’s called St. Petersburg. Along the way, we visit Grozny, Kirovsk and the Caucasus Mountains during the Russian-Chechen wars.
The ink of the censor Markin leaches far and wide.
I first discovered Anthony Marra in the pages of the American literary journal, Zoetrope: All Story. “The Grozny Tourist Bureau” takes place during the Second Chechen War, shortly after the capital of Grozny has been razed to the ground by the Russians. Yet the Interior Minister believes that a little PR is all that’s needed to bring investors back to Chechnya.
“Nothing suggests stability and peace like a thriving tourism sector,” the minister said.
The newly minted head of the Grozny Tourist Bureau, Ruslan Dokurov, takes a group of Chinese oilmen on a tour.
The road winds over what was once a roof. A verdigris-encrusted arm rises from the debris, its forefinger raised skyward. The Lenin statue once stood in the square outside this school, arm raise, rallying schoolchildren to glorious revolution, but now, buried to his chin like a cowboy sentenced to death beneath the desert sun, Vladimir Ilich waves only for help.
Dokurov’s cynicism is matched only by his longing for life before war. When he was the humble deputy director of the Grozny Museum of Regional Art. When his wife and son lived in their dacha overlooking an empty pasture in afternoon.
A meadow, an apricot tree, a stone wall in a diagonal meander through the grasses, the pasture cresting into a hill, a boarded well, a house.
The dacha is still there but his family is not. The museum collection burned, but for a handful of paintings Dokurov manages to save. He hangs them in his flat and adds his flat to the Grozny tour.
The oligarch Oleg Voronov comes to visit. They say he’s the 14th richest man in Russia. His wife Galina wants the Empty Pasture in Afternoon. She explains to Dokurov:
You wouldn’t understand, but someone I once loved died in this field.
fact versus fiction
Zakharov is a real Russian-Chechen painter but, as far as I can tell, he never made a landscape painting called Empty Pasture in Afternoon. Oleg Voronov doesn’t exist either, though there is a Russian oligarch named Igor Sechin who bears an eerie resemblance. Marra knows how to mold facts into fiction, just as the Russians have the unerring ability to reshape their own past.
In “Palace of the People”, we learn that Kresty was once
the imperial wine warehouse and stored enough booze to keep the royal family and their courtiers pickled through the long winters. After the emancipation of the serfs, when the state assumed from landlords the responsibility of locking up the newly freed, Kresty became a jail.
To Sergei and his friends, Kresty Prison is the only place where they’ll be safe from military duty in Chechnya. They don’t care about what happened there during the Great Terror. It doesn’t matter that the prison, built to house a thousand souls, now holds ten times that number. Sergei’s own father spent some time there. Sergei goes once to visit.
The air around my father tasted of sweat, ammonia, and chlorine. He looked like a man born on a planet without vegetables or direct sunlight. “You got a smoke?” he asked me. I was nine years old.
Music is the other theme that runs throughout this collection. We hear the strains of the Nutcracker Suite as a new couple waltzes along the banks of a toxic lake. We feel the bass thump of the Dictatorship of Dance, the Supreme Soviet of Sound, as it carries a young boy through the teenage years. That boy grows up and, in the title story “The Tsar of Love and Techno”, makes a mixtape for his beloved older brother to take to the Chechen front.
By all rights, The Tsar of Love and Techno should be a deeply depressing book. It is, after all, about war and peace, death and destruction, under the baleful eyes of a totalitarian government. Yet, despite its meandering through prison cells, Arctic gulags and Chechen minefields, we meet people who love each other, though they may try hard to hide it.
the way he manages to hit both ends of the keyboard.
There is a generosity embedded in Marra’s work: a smile, a chuckle, a tear. We want his characters to survive against all odds and when they don’t, we mourn them. But they’re not gone forever. We have The Tsar of Love and Techno. We can play Marra’s own mixtape. Or, as Marra writes in “The End”:
One more time through. From the beginning. Just give me that. Please.