‘Icame of age in the reign of Brezhnev,” says one of the recurring characters in “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” Anthony Marra’s cluster of ingeniously conjoined stories that touch on Russian life over a series of decades, “when young men would enter civil service academies hardy and robust, only to leave two years later anemic and stooped, cured forever of the inclination to be civil or of service to anyone.”
The speaker is Ruslan, a scholar, artist manqué, and deputy director of the Museum of Regional Art in Grozny. Ruslan has been railroaded into heading the city’s tourist office and tasked with rebranding Chechnya as “the Dubai of the Caucasus.” He’s got his work cut out for him. Devastated from two wars and ringed with land mines, Grozny has descended into the kind of goth dystopia where one can buy knives at the airport gift shop. Ruslan lost a wife and son to one of those land mines, and it is all he can do to keep the cardboard tourist-bureau signs taped to his office door from being ripped off by the street children.
In this second book, as in his Chechen-war-set debut novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon,” Marra has charged himself with the quandary of selling us on characters who have had the joy sucked from their souls and on places that Viking Cruise captains are inclined to navigate around. Where his first effort felt virtuosic but somewhat airless, Marra here emerges with an oxygenizing wisdom and an arsenal of wit as inexhaustible as it is unlikely, given such forlorn terrain.
Marra’s nine stories, cunningly set out like strewn mosaic tiles that keep self-rearranging until they cohere into a complex, cathartic whole, demand to be read in order. His disparate cast of characters variously connect back to the book’s initial protagonist, Roman Markin, a failed painter and Stalinist functionary in 1937 Leningrad whose creative gifts are willingly compromised in service of the big boss’ brutal purges. As “correction artist” (read: censor), Roman airbrushes out photograhic images of political undesirables, including a pious brother accused of religious radicalism and a renowned prima ballerina arrested for alleged involvement in a Polish spy ring.
Roman’s hard-line communism is concretized in his aesthetic credo: “For art to be the chisel that breaks the marble inside us, the artist must first become the hammer.” Given the all-pervading paranoia of the state, one is not surprised when Roman becomes a victim of the very ideological hammer he wielded on others. But before he goes down, he finds poetical redemption in painting portraits of his ill-fated brother into every image he is compelled to retouch.
In Marra’s ever-circling conception of Russian society, citizens and governments alike are fated to repeat and magnify the errors of their forebearers with a boomeranging self-destructiveness. Just as a newly installed President Putin gives a new lease on life to Stalin’s repressive legacy, so Galina, the granddaughter of the ballerina whose career tanked under Stalin, honors her grandmother’s rebel spirit by bad-mouthing the new president, only to see her own flourishing livelihood as a movie starlet flame out in kind.
The title of Galina’s one big hit, a cheesy genre flick called “Deceit Web,” speaks to the calamitous tangle of betrayals and denunciations that are the daily bread of Marra’s people. At 63, Vera, the subject of the masterfully-layered tale “Wolf of White Forest,” is haunted anew by her childhood, when an innocent comment about her mother’s pie baking resulted in her mother being executed as a flour-thieving Trotskyite. Decades later, a similar fate befalls Vera’s daughter, whose loose-lipped remarks betray a drug gang (led by Galina’s ex-lover) who fence their wares from Vera’s house.
Marra lightens his succession of stifled lives and wantonly polluted landscapes with liberating flights of humor that range in tone from bone dry to vaudevillian. There is the oligarch’s officious assistant “whose saccharine perfume smells of vaporized cherubs”; the old-timer who, confronted with his first computer, confuses Google with Gogol; the young man from Kirovsk, who, appalled at the chaotic spectacle of Chechnyans mobbing an airport gate, muses “Bunch of maniacs. Who’d ever want to wage war against people so insistent on independence they’d rebel against airline boarding procedure?”
Who indeed? In the Russian world according to Marra, standing out is antithetical to survival. You want to be an oligarch, fine; just be the 14th richest, not first or second. As one of Marra’s anonymous narrators says of her generation’s legacy to its children, “[O]ur greatest gift has been to imprint upon them our own ordinariness. They may begrudge us, may think us unambitious and narrow-minded, but someday they will realize that what makes them unremarkable is what keeps them alive.”
By Anthony Marra
Hogarth, 352 pp., $25
Jan Stuart is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.