Communists, oligarchs, and toxic landscapes from Siberia to Chechnya define this collection of tightly linked stories from Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, 2013).
In fact, let’s go ahead and call it a novel: though the individual stories bounce around in time and are told in different voices, they share a set of characters and have a clear narrative arc. More importantly, they share a command of place and character that strikingly reimagines nearly a century of changes in Russia. In the opener, “The Leopard,” a communist censor in 1937 secretly inserts his disappeared brother’s face in the photos he retouches—a fact that re-emerges in later stories and also serves as a symbol for how what’s lost in Russia never quite disappears. (An oil painting of a bland Chechnyan landscape plays a similar role.) From there, the story moves to chilly Kirovsk, a cancer-ridden industrial town that’s struggled to adjust to the fall of Communism, and hometown of Galina, a middling actress who’s risen to fame thanks to her marriage with Russia’s 13th wealthiest man. In Chechnya, we meet her childhood boyfriend, Kolya, who’s been taken prisoner after becoming a soldier. Marra’s Russia is marked by both interconnection and darkly comic irony; Kolya’s stint in captivity is “the most serene of his adult life,” while elsewhere a man is roped into trying to sell mine-ridden Grozny as a tourist destination. (“For inspiration, I studied pamphlets from the tourist bureaus of other urban hellscapes: Baghdad, Pyongyang, Houston.”) As in his previous novel, Marra is deft at managing different characters at different points in time, but the book’s brilliance and humor are laced with the somber feeling that the country is allergic to evolution: KGB thugs then, drug dealers and Internet scammers now, with a few stray moments of compassion in between.
A powerful and melancholy vision of a nation with long memories and relentless turmoil.