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26 September 2018


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The Tsar of Love and Techno

by Anthony Marra (Hogather, $25)

Marra’s novel is a spider web stretched across one hundred years of Russian history, where a twinge on one filament resounds to some distant corner. Constructed as a group of loosely interwoven stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno is a profound musing on the Russian condition, and on the power of images, place, memory and character. It is by turns funny and sad, deep and profane, touching and disturbing. And everywhere you look there are beautiful turns of phrase:

"The poor child had inherited his father’s forehead. His future lay under a hat…. Yellow fog enshrouded the city like a varnish aged upon the air…. All that was admirable in her lay between her neck and her ankles…. The phantoms of two hundred thousand cigarettes and a street pirozhki haunted his breath."

Among many other things, in the novel there is an artist who has a gift for airbrushing out enemies of the people from photographs, who then starts inserting images of his purged brother in everything he edits. There is a ballerina sent to the Gulag and her beauty queen daughter, whose first love ends up a prisoner in the Caucasus; a former museum head who now runs the Grozny Tourist Bureau while caring for a blind restorationist; a woman who becomes a hero after betraying her parents to the revolution; and a couple of modern punk hackers. At the center of the vast web is the Arctic town of Kirovsk and a mediocre painting, edited by the airbrush master, of a Chechen landscape.

We know we are in the realm of fiction, but Marra makes it all feel viscerally real. He has mined modern Russian history for all it is worth to create a masterful novel.


— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2015