“History is the error we are forever correcting.”
The Tsar of Love and Techno is a series of interlocked stories spanning generations in Russia, Siberia, and Chechnya. It starts with a bang, telling stories of a Soviet censor who paints his brother, who was executed and whose existence was wiped out by the government, into every painting he is asked to alter, then going on to tell the story of three generations of women in Siberia. These early segments burn with urgency and beauty. Unfortunately, large swathes of the middle are taken up with a love story between Galina (introduced among the third generation of girls in Siberia) and Kolya, a boy from her town conscripted into fighting the Chechen conflict. Tsar is at its best when it isn’t focusing on these two, particularly because Kolya’s personality never quite gels into a single thread. Whenever he shows up it feels like you’re introduced to a new character, not someone who should feel familiar to you. The thread with the Soviet censor, which is also used as a connecting point for the stories, is a much more effective device–perhaps because it also feels less cliched then a story of lovers torn apart by war.
The Tsar of Love and Techno is a remarkable look at nearly a hundred years of Russian history you don’t usually read about. Marra uses some deft touches to question family, love, history, and permanence. And while Tsar does regain some of its mojo toward the end, one does walk away wishing Marra hadn’t been as caught up in the story of Kolya and Galina as he was.