Anthony Marra’s exploration of (mostly) 20th-century Russia with the story of a painter charged with editing paintings, removing objectionable figures or adding important ones. His work spreads across Russia, and one painting in particular haunts Marra’s characters. It’s not much to look at, as Roman, the censor, notes:
On my desk lay a pastoral by the nineteenth-century Chechen painter Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets, perhaps the dullest work in his catalogue raisonné. An empty pasture in late daylight rises to a crest in the canvas’s top third. A white stone wall cuts a quiet diagonal across the field. A dacha, a well, and an herb garden extending halfway up the pasture hill, foregrounded in shadow. There is no sign of life or movement, not even a lost goat.
As directed, Roman add a party boss to the foreground of the picture, but he doesn’t stop there. He also adds a little Easter egg, something he adds to his edited paintings whenever he can, the face of his brother Vaska, executed and erased years earlier for religious radicalism. But the heart is too powerful to let a loved one stay forgotten. That, to me, is the hopeful message of this novel. Again and again, people are robbed of their loved ones, their truths, their histories, but they never lose the memory entirely. It may take years, but there’s enough of a flicker to keep it alive.
I’ve seen this book described as a short story collection, but it read like a novel with a large cast to me. Each chapter addresses a different character or set of characters, but they’re tightly connected. A ballerina Roman edited out of a photo in one chapter is a political prisoner in another. Her granddaughter becomes a movie star whose boyfriend is conscripted to fight in Chechnya, eventually doing forced labor in the very field in the painting Roman edited. That’s just barely skimming what happens in this book. Marra lets us see this world from a variety of perspectives—artists, miners, curators, criminals, soldiers.
As complex as the book is, Marra’s storytelling is extremely well-disciplined, both in terms of the prose and in the structure. Hardly a moment seems out of place or wasted. Seemingly insignificant moments echo through the narrative as other characters happen upon lost histories or cross paths with figures from the other chapters. The chapters might be able to stand alone as individual stories, but I don’t think they’d be nearly so impressive as they are together.
For some reason, I had the idea that this was one of those madcap satirical novels of recent history. I suppose it’s the improbable juxtaposition of terms in the title. As much as I can appreciate books like The Sympathizer and The Orphan Master’s Son for their black humor, I’m easily exhausted by those kinds of books. This book, however, was quieter. It has funny moments, but I never felt Marra was trying to make me laugh. It’s assured and confident. I hope it does well in the Tournament of Books.