First published in 1997, David King’s “The Commissar Vanishes” — a collection of photographs doctored by the state censors in the Soviet Union under Stalin — is among the most unnerving and fascinating books I know. As the subjects of these portraits ran afoul of Communist Party leaders and were exiled or executed, their images disappeared as well. Paging through the volume, one can observe a group of comrades dwindle, one by one, until only a single survivor remains in the frame. Over the years, I’ve often returned to this harrowing illustration of the ways in which history can be manipulated, rewritten and retouched. And I’ve wondered about the artists (Rodchenko was among them) assigned the distasteful duty of deleting the dead and disgraced.
A similar curiosity appears to have inspired Anthony Marra, whose remarkable collection of linked short stories, “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” begins with one written from the point of view of a man charged with this odious task. After having been made to expunge his brother from a photo, the censor balks at removing another image, that of a disgraced Polish ballerina. He erases her figure but leaves her disembodied hand — “where it is, where it should be, right there, a single hand waving for help, waving good-bye, applauding no one” — and is made to suffer for this small gesture of defiance.
As the setting of the stories moves from the last century to this one, from Leningrad to Kirovsk, a Siberian labor camp turned toxic hellhole, from Chechnya (where Marra’s acclaimed first novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” takes place) into outer space, a succession of images, themes and characters recur and reappear in new and freshly imagined iterations. A 19th-century Chechen landscape painting of a meadow, a snapshot of a family in leopard-print swimsuits, a mix tape, a series of museums and an herb garden will all turn out to have lasting significance for these mostly hapless men and women. As we meet the descendants, the lost loves, the siblings and the worst nightmares of characters we have encountered in earlier stories, there is, for the reader, a particular pleasure in these moments when we suddenly recognize someone or something that has seemed familiar.
So the granddaughter of the Polish ballerina unknowingly responsible for the censor’s downfall grows up to be a winner of the Miss Siberia contest, a film actress — and the wife of one of the richest oligarchs in the former Soviet Union. Her teenage sweetheart is sent to fight in Chechnya, where he is taken prisoner and forced to cultivate a garden for his captors. The landscape painting that has captured the censor’s imagination winds up in the possession of a museum director guiding tourists through war-ravaged Grozny. Early on, we hear about a woman from Kirovsk who has become the mail-order bride of a piano tuner in California; later, we witness her return home, where a dire fate awaits her. And because drug-dealing has become the most viable career option in the polluted Siberian wasteland, where the forests are planted with trees made of steel and plastic and locals swim in a pool of industrial runoff known as Lake Mercury, we find ourselves among gangsters who traffic in intimidation, terror and murder that — during the time of the censor — were functions of the state. Betrayal remains a constant theme, even as the affiliations of the betrayers change, along with the crimes and the alleged crimes of the victims they inform on.
In the hands of a lesser talent, all this could have seemed gimmicky and artificial. But it’s to Marra’s credit that each parallel, echo and correspondence deepens our sympathy for his characters and their plight. It’s as if we’re being introduced to an extended family, meeting distant relatives for whom we hope things will turn out well, even as we know that such hopes are unlikely to be fulfilled. And if we start off wondering why exactly we are reading this when so many stunning firsthand accounts of life under Stalin and in the gulags exist, our doubts are put to rest as we come to understand the design and scope of Marra’s project, and by passages such as this moving description of a family’s antic afternoon at Lake Mercury, an outing memorialized in the Polaroid photo of the leopard-print-clad sunbathers:
“We bared our teeth and snarled, we clawed and growled, we were wild, we didn’t care, and all the while my father chased and my mother fled. . . . Never had I seen her so happy, never so loved, so wanted, never had I seen her as a sexual being, as desired quarry, as anything but a taciturn and dissatisfied figure at the kitchen sink who occasionally walloped me over the head with a soup ladle; and even though my father had no appreciation for metaphor, or feline biology, or the sunbathers he hurdled over, even though he was my father and she my mother and we were all a few steps from the precipice, I look back at that moment, that afternoon, with flooded longing, and think: We should all be so lucky to get from life a sunny-day swim in chemical waste.”
Sentences such as these confirm what “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” so persuasively demonstrated. Marra is a gifted writer with the energy and the ambition to explore the lives of characters whose experiences and whose psyches might seem, until we read his work, so distant from our own. Reading his work is like watching the restoration — the reappearance, on the page — of those whom history has erased.
Francine Prose’s latest novel is “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.” She is a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College.
On Oct. 16 at 7 p.m., Anthony Marra will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Anthony Marra.
Hogarth. 332 pp. $25