Thinking Aloud: “The Tsar of Love and Techno”

Dec. 23, 2015 by Darius 

I recently read The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. It’s an epic, surreal novel that spans decades and thousands of miles, composed of disparate threads of story and peopled by characters bound together through time and space by their connection to a single Soviet censor artist.

In the 1920s, a former artist is employed by the Soviet government to erase the faces of the victims of purges from photographs and paintings. Although the artist is a good Communist, his brother’s death at the hands of the government inspires him to engage in a small act of resistance: he airbrushes and paints his brother’s face into dozens of photographs and paintings in place of the faces he erases.

The artist’s work and, in particular, a landscape painted by a Chechen artist later modified by the artist, becomes the thread that unites the subsequent elements of the story. A ballerina, exiled to a gulag north of the Arctic Circle, stages annual ballets with the roles danced by inmates. Two Russian soldiers, taken prisoner by insurgents in Chechnya, find themselves living in the same meadow of the Chechen landscape painting. The Tsar of Love and Techno even weaves in a story at the edge of the solar system.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is at its best when Marra sticks to his main plot: people struggling to live their lives during the worst years of the Soviet Union and, later, Russia, and, in the process, creating beauty and hope out of dire circumstances. Some of his turns into surrealism and magical realism work well, but others just serve to confuse the story.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is one of those books that grows on the reader as it progresses. It would be a welcome addition to any holiday reading list.

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