Oh, you guys. This book. This book knocked me out. I'm sitting here trying to think of how to describe it. It's a collection of short stories, a novel in stories, with characters that reappear. It's set in Russia/USSR/Chechnya from a time period starting in 1937 to the present day. Horrible things happen (well, look at the places and the times). Hilarious things happen. People betray other people. People face consequences of their actions. And it all starts with an artist who has been conscripted into censoring artwork--he spends his days working for the state, painting out "enemies" in photographs and artwork. There's one piece of artwork he works on in particular that becomes central to the story and is woven throughout.
I'm making it sound really boring. It's anything but boring. Marra's writing is sharp and clear, with plenty of dark humor:
"I'd never imagined that something as solemn and final as death could be this idiotic. It was the keyhole through which I first glimpsed life's madness: The institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved ones will fail us, and death is a falling piano."
In compact text, Marra gives us the Catch-22 of living in this part of the world:
"'You're coming from Petersburg too?' I asked. I knew I wasn't actually in danger of abduction. I also knew it's important to build a rapport with your captor."
And, not knowing when this particular story was written, I have to wonder about Marra's glimpse of the future here in the U.S.:
"Six months later, he had signed Sergei up for language classes taught by an Australian man with English teeth. Al Pacino quotes and Tupac lyrics qualified as rudimentary English and Sergei placed out of the intro course. Within two years, he spoke well enough to take Business English I and II, which used Donald Trump's autobiography for a textbook. In such richly manured soil, a seed hardly needs sunlight to grow."
I can't count this as this year's surprise, new-to-me Tournament of Books discovery, because I was aware of Marra, although I couldn't get into his previous book. But the ToB tipped me into reading this one, and oh, am I glad I did.