As Anthony Marra contemplated his sophomore effort as a fiction writer, following the successful debut of his first novel, about the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya, he found himself looking over enticing bits of trivia left over from the earlier project.
They included stories about a tourist bureau set up to "re-brand" a former war-torn region in Eastern Europe, a collection of photographs retouched by Stalinist censors to erase dissidents, and a Miss Siberia beauty pageant.
"I knew I had to figure out a way to use them," said Marra, the featured speaker at the Jan. 7 luncheon of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, of these tantalizing slices of life, which he had accumulated during research for his novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena." The event was held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.
The result of Marra's literary scavenging is "The Tsar of Love and Techno," a book of interwoven short stories, containing common themes, characters and settings, including the fictional town of Kirovsk, above the arctic circle in Siberia. The book was published in 2015 by Hogarth,
While some disparage the short story as a kind of "minor league" for fiction writers, said Marra, he set out to use it to chronicle several families over three generations, spinning a tale over a period of some 80 years from the tunnels below St. Petersburg in the late 1930s, to the final story set in outer space.
"I ended up trying to use this maligned form to tell a big and meaty story that I wouldn't have been able to do within the limitations of a novel," said Marra, a resident of Oakland, who teaches writing at Stanford University in addition to his career as a fiction writer.
Early in the book, we meet Roman Osipovich Markin, a classically trained artist whose job is to systematically erase the faces of enemies of the Soviet state from photographs and portraits. As a subtle form of subversion, he draws the face of his brother, who was executed for the crime of "religious radicalism," into the images he is censoring.
"Over the last two years I have inserted him into hundreds of photographs and paintings. Young Vaskas. Old Vaskas. Vaskas of crowds listening to Lenin. Vaskas laboring in fields and factories. He hangs on the walls of courthouses, ministries, schools, prisons, even the NKVD (secret police) headquarters, where is you look closely, you will see Vaska glaring at Yevgeny Tuchkov, the man who made him disappear," Marra wrote.
Later, we meet Alexei, whose brother, Kolya, was a contract soldier who died in Chechnya in a pasture-turned-minefield pictured in a painting by a prominent Chechen artist. The painting turns up at various times throughout the book. Alexei aspires to be a professional aphorist, someone who dreams up pithy sayings.
Another element of the book, the fictional city of Kirovsk, almost becomes another main character due to Marra's vivid rendering. One of the most polluted cities in the world, Kirovsk (which is modeled after a real Siberian town), has a lake filled with toxic chemicals ringed by a dozen smokestacks, dubbed by residents as the "Twelve Apostles."
A forest of metal trees adorned with white plastic leaves is adjacent to the town, installed at the behest of a party boss's wife. Real trees won't grow in Kirovsk because of pollution from the town's nickel mines, and one of two residents contracts lung cancer.
Marra became fascinated with Russian history and culture when he lived in St. Petersburg during college as a foreign exchange student. He later traveled to Russia — including visits to Siberia and Chechnya — to gather material for his writing.
But he said the two books have allowed him to get Russia out of his system for at least the time being, and the novel he is working on now is set in Los Angeles and Italy in the 1940s.
In his other role as a university lecturer, said Marra, he becomes a sort of defense attorney, who must back up his views on fiction writing with cogent argument.
"It certainly forces me to articulate my thoughts about how fiction should work in a way that I don't have to do when I'm sitting in my pajamas at my desk with the shades drawn," he said.
For more information, visit anthonymarra.net.