Before last weekend, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the last book that made me cry. Of all the books I read last year, The Corrections may have made me sigh a few times, but no tears fell. I like to think that I am a tough critic, not a heartless reader. I finished reading Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno at 12:30 on a Saturday night, and as soon as I closed the book, I burst into tears. This book is one of the most moving and well constructed collection of linked short stories I have ever read. The easiest comparison to make would be to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but Marra’s stories feel more constrained: revolving around a single painting, the legacy of a prima ballerina, and a handful of people from the same village.
As the title may suggest, these nine stories are set in Russia – Leningrad, Siberia, and Chechnya. We start with a “correction artist,” essentially a censor, working in 1937 Leningrad. He carefully paints enemies of the party out of photographs, news clippings, and historical documents, until one day he is handed a photograph of a disgraced prima ballerina to doctor. We slowly discover that this ballerina is at the heart of multiple stories. I don’t want to say more about how the stories are connected, because that is half of the fun in reading it yourself. What I will say is that while each story is in itself well crafted, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. Marra will make you laugh, furiously underline passages, and then sweep the rug out from under you and absolutely knock you off your feet.
Marra explores the relationships between mother and child in a time when children were encouraged to denounce their parents, the idea of history repeating itself, and grandchildren repeating their grandparents’ mistakes. Life is hard in Siberia, and yet, the characters seize upon the bright moments of joy in their lives. In a Siberian nickel mine combine, the elderly swim in a chemical lake because they are unafraid of death. Soon, the entire combine joins in, and a Polaroid of two boys and their mother in matching leopard bikini bottoms makes an appearance throughout the book.
“There were days when Earth’s small glories were luminous enough to dim church icons to duller golds.”
The book is set up like a mix tape, with Side A, an intermission (which is the title story and the longest story), and Side B. Music plays a part in the stories, and Marra even released a playlist on Spotify for the book. A physical mixtape is also at the heart of the story. One brother makes another a mixtape before he is drafted and deployed to fight in the Second Chechen War – he is told to listen to it In Case of Emergency, both a beacon and a salve. The mixtape provides a hope, curiosity, and motivation to survive the war long enough to find a cassette player to listen to the tape.
“The stomach is not the only vital organ that hungers.”
It was these descriptions of joy, hope, and hunger that moved me to tears. I sincerely hope this book makes you cry too.
I would recommend this book to you, to anyone, to everyone. I will be buying a copy of this book as birthday presents for my friends the rest of the year.
- Listen to Anthony Marra’s mixtape on Spotify after you’ve read the book.
- I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
- Listen to NPR interview Anthony Marra
- Buy this book
- The stories revolve around a fictional painting by a real Chechen painter, Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets. Read more about him here.