THE TSAR OF LOVE AND TECHNO, by Anthony Marra. Hogarth, 332 pp., $25.
"The more things change, the more they stay the same," goes the old French epigram, and it's a truism that the characters in "The Tsar of Love and Techno," Anthony Marra's dazzling new collection of linked stories, learn the hard way. They may live in Russia, Siberia or Chechnya, during or after Soviet rule, but these circumstances work only minor variations on their fates. The authorities -- and the universe -- are equally capricious, equally cruel. This ambitious work of fiction, by a 31-year-old American writer, draws from the well of Tolstoy, Gogol and other great works of Russian literature.
The book's ingenious opening story, "The Leopard," is set in Leningrad in 1937 and narrated by Roman Mikhailovich Markin, a censor in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation who works in an underground office in the subway under construction. Tasked with altering photographs and paintings by removing figures now out of favor, he begins to insert the face of his brother Vaska, who was tried and executed on charges of religious radicalism. "Do I worry I'll be caught?" Markin asks. "Please. My superiors are too focused on who I take out to notice who I put in." But when confronted with the photograph of a now disgraced ballerina on the Mariinsky stage, Markin airbrushes out all but one hand, left floating mysteriously in air. This impulsive act will have severe ramifications.StoryExcerpt: 'The Tsar of Love and Techno'
In the next story, "The Granddaughters," we meet that dancer, a prima ballerina of the Kirov Ballet, who, for her supposed involvement with a Polish saboteur ring, is sentenced to a labor camp on the "wrong side of the Arctic Circle," where a "winter day is a fifteen-minute glow on the horizon." There she is instructed to create and train a ballet troupe by the camp director, a balletomane. The story is narrated by the young women of Kirovsk, friends of the ballerina's granddaughter, Galina. Though Stalin dies and is discredited, and the camp is decommissioned, the "administrators transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Ferrous Metallurgy Ministry without even changing offices," they report. "The same people pulled nickel from the ground." Galina inherits her grandmother's beauty but not her grace -- she "danced with the subtlety of a spooked ostrich." But her looks will help her to win the inaugural Miss Siberia Beauty Contest, despite a disastrous performance of Odette's solo from "Swan Lake."
Galina's story -- and that of her young love, Kolya, a local drug dealer who is called up for mandatory military service in Chechnya -- is one of the unifying threads of the collection. Though we first see Galina and Kolya through the cynical eyes of the granddaughters, we later revisit their romance through the less jaded eyes of Kolya's younger brother in the long, touching title story, which humanizes these initially unsavory characters, and gives Kolya a backstory, including a beloved mother dead of cancer and a childhood obsession with cosmonauts.
Kolya's ill fortunes in Chechnya are the subject of "A Prisoner of the Caucasus" -- a nod to Tolstoy's novella -- in which Kolya and a Russian contract soldier are captured and held by rebels in a bucolic pasture overlooked by a dacha. In a move typical of this tightly braided collection, this field had once been painted by the 19th century Chechen artist Pyotr Zacharov-Chechenets (a real figure), a painting that first appears in "The Leopard" (where the censor Markin is instructed to insert a party boss in the foreground) and will reappear again elsewhere.
Marra's publisher bills "The Tsar of Love and Techno" as a story collection, but so interconnected are these tales that it might have been called a novel; with its multiple narratives and recurring characters it certainly recalls both Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad" (a novel) and Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge"(short stories). By the time you reach Marra's astonishing final story about Kolya, "The End" -- set, a dateline tells us, in "Outer Space, Year Unknown" -- the book has achieved a heart-rending cumulative power.
You could call the book an astonishment, except that Marra is already the author of "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," a debut novel from 2013 that earned rapturous reviews and many honors, including the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle. Much as I loved that book, I like this one better -- the short story form focuses and intensifies Marra's themes of memory, art, loyalty, betrayal and love echoing through the generations.