November 29, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Clear 5°C
Search the archives:
Bios & Memoirs


The Long Good Bye

The Raymond Chandler of the final Philip Marlowe book is more brilliant than ever, but also burned out.

The Country Road

Regina Ullmann's stories, finally translated into English, are creations of other-worldly grace.

The Making of the Zombie Wars

Aleksandar Hemon takes a sincere crack at screwball comedy, but he swings and misses.

The Mersault Investigation

Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud beats incredible odds in re-imagining Camus' "The Stranger."

The Illogic of Kassel

Vila-Matas' latest translated novel is a voyage into self, art and literature with a gimpy happy ending.

A Cat, A Man, and Two Women

Junichiro Tanizaki's short fiction is a walk on the odd side, featuring a cat, a student dictator and a foot fetishist.

Three Moments of an Explosion

China Miιville latest collection of stories turns the known world upside down to terrifying effect.

The Detour

Dutchman Gerbrand Bakker is establishing a foothold as a major European writer.

Prosperous Friends

Christine Schutt again proves her mettle as a stylist in this novel of frayed and fraying relationships.

Bios & Memoirs

Chickens Eat Pasta

British journalist Clare Pedrick's charming Italian memoir is a love affair with country, house and man.

The Tsar of Love and Techno
By Anthony Marra
Hogarth, 2015. 332 pages

"Everyone needs an origin story," muses a supporting character toward the end of American writer Anthony Marra's moving collection of puzzle-piece stories that span a tormented century of Russia history. He opens in 1930s Leningrad with Stalin-era censor Roman — master of the airbrush, a "maker and eraser of human faces" — whose denouncement of his brother's ideological infidelities is a prelude to his own swallowing up by the period's knee-jerk purges.

Roman's guilt-marred decision to airbrush the face of his doomed brother into a prized Chechen landscape and the vicissitudes of that haunting, vagabond painting gives Marra license to introduce characters from the arctic city of Kirovsk, a leaden and malignant anti-Las Vegas 1,000 miles north of Moscow. Once the prized seat of Soviet nickel mining, Kirovsk is now a detritus-filled Siberian wasteland. Its lovingly sculpted emissaries — a failed ballerina and starlet; a thug; his music-loving brother; mothers, aunts, and others — are the progeny of defeat and the substance of a Russian whole.

Galina, Miss Siberia and star of a 1990s spy movie, will leave Kirovsk, marry an oligarch, and purchase the Chechen pastoral. Her good-hearted ex-boyfriend Kolya will find himself on the Chechen front, first as a conscript, later as a mercenary, blown up in the meadow the landscape portrays. One of Galina's friends, Lydia, is a 1990s a mail-order bride in California — but the marriage stalls and soon she'll be back with her mother in the white forest of Kirovsk's fake trees, her life meaningless to drug enforcers, including Kolya. Then there's Kolya's brother Alexei, or "Little Radish," eager to make post-Communist inroads but foiled by the pollution of both city and country, a metaphor Kirovsk serves well. As Roman's grandnephew, he is in possession of the painting.

Marra builds an ambitious (perhaps overly ambitious) Rubik's Cube of family ties and genealogical spillage with characters that exist to serve memory lane. They turn them this way and that, sketching and stretching a 100-year-long fictional canvas rife with irony and black humor ("You prove loyalty through betrayal," says a paraplegic beggar.) The painting link makes for half-mad fathers who curate self-styled outer space museums, Chechen bureaucrats who "manage" culture from Grozny's rubble, and even apprentice cheater Alexei — who uses fans of Tom Hanks' Facebook page to craft identity theft, a natural progression from airbrushing to hacking. These "parents and penitents" live in "an eternal present tense" within an ageless museum of Russian origins, a beautiful purgatory evoked with uncanny passion by an author who has the gift of entering into a culture that isn't his, and working diligently to possess it.

Reviewed by Book Staff
Day and Boarding International High School in the Heart of Rome

Everything you need to know about visiting or moving to Tuscany, Italy.