I came across "the tsar" wondering the aisles of Bolen Books with a stack of novels under my arm. As I stood surveying journals a man looked at my books and said please come with me.

So I followed.

We made our way to 'staff picks' where he handed me 'the tsar of love and techno stories'

"I believe you will enjoy this. Anthony Marra is a Russian writer".

And he continued on his way.

I quickly discovered Anthony Marra is a truly remarkable writer.

How can a mind conjure up such insight into the human condition and convey it so articulately. Where does it come from? His stories craft and reveal concepts with life lessons embedded in parable. I find myself dreaming of telling stories with such proficiency. As it often is when we dare to imagine our own capabilities relative to individuals immersed in mastery we become aware of a standard which is hard to comprehend; leaving any writing I do feeling amateurish and superficial, almost rudimentary.

I recall feeling the same way previously in my life.

How could I ever imagine matching wits, and engines, with these individuals.

In comparison we lose sight, and therefor I will leave this insecurity be.

When we create we access our inner voice, voices, and convey fleeting thoughts, as if snatching "bubbles in a vast, dark sea."

And possibly summon the courage to share, if one chooses to, in defiance of the nattering chorus, out into the world beyond our minds, including the realm of the cynics with their better one liners.

We must all begin somewhere and writing is not a competition, it is both more, and less.

The less is the quibbles, the texts and the tweets, the inane and the lazy.

It is also the lists and forms used to record and relay logistics. Valuable incased in their intention but otherwise benign.

"For art to be the chisel that breaks the marble inside us, the artist must first become the hammer" - {Anthony Marra 'The Leopard'}.

This is the more. More then any competition, it is pure expression, to sit and write, to strike at the blank page, I feel, is to aspire to unravel, and therefor understand, ourselves, to move towards that which we do not know. With no quantifiable measure beyond the subjective to mark a ranking, it is neither "right" nor "wrong" and therefor pure in its expression. Or is it. What is written propaganda? When content is fashioned to solicit, coral and direct actions. Is there a line? where is it? Is it balanced on the intent to manipulate?

I suspect I may have this all "wrong", the subject of "what is literature?" And "what is propaganda?" has been debated at great length through the ages, this being my first foray into the matter, one to which I suspect I will reread years from now, and shake my head at my past self, while smiling, before tipping my hat at the courage required in just trying.

To whom be the judge.

I will leave this for another day, and further contemplation, although as it relates to 'the tsar' it is relevant.

 

Marra takes us on a journey which starts in Leningrad in 1937.

'The Leopard' begins.

"I am an artist first, a censor second."

The story centres around a man who mets his brothers widow and his nephew for the first time in their third floor flat of a communal apartment block. He works for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. He asks her to gather every photograph she has of his brother. After she complies and arranges them on the desk he gives her a one-ruble coin. Hammer and sickle side up.

"What am I to do with this?" She says.

He grabs her wrist and pinches the coin between her fingers. "I am here to make sure you don't get hurt. Your husband was an enemy of the people [he believed in a god in heaven, not a god of the state]. What do you think will happen if NKVD men search the flat and find all these photographs? Must I go into greater detail?".

"That coin could have bought a meat pie, a sketch pad, a confectionary, a bar of soap; pressed into someone else's palm it could have become the bright spot in a dull day, but coins cannot choose their fate."

When the man hears the slow scratch of the coin on photo paper he turns away. His brothers face obliterated, fated to be only an image sustained by their memories, no longer accessible to those who would erase all likeness of him further. And take his son away to an orphanage to be reconstructed in the image of their Stalin, their vozhd.

The mans job is to reconstruct history, to sit and paint out faces, entire people, from photographs and canvas. To erase all trace of those who oppose the state and embed Stalins, younger and younger versions of the icon to the people, into every moment in history he can, to reshape and define the past and its narrative according to the agenda of the state.

If we are made invisible in the present did we ever exist at all.

He goes on to tell his nephew the story of the Evil Tsar.

Anthony Marra - the leopard

"do you speak?" i asked.

He nodded.

"what an understatement, I see. Tell me your name."

"Vladimir."

I clasped his shoulder and he flinched, surprised by the sudden gesture of affection. He shared his first name with Lenin - an auspicious sign.

"I want to see if you can do something for me," I asked.

"are you willing to try?"

He nodded.

"stare straight at me." I instructed, then I flashed my fingers by his ear. "how many am I holding up?"

He held up four fingers.

"Very good. You've got keen eyes. Someday you might be a sharpshooter or a watchman. I'm going to tell you the story of the tsar and the painting. Have you heard it?"

The coin scratching in the bedroom might have been wind rustling leaves; we might have been far from there, near a dacha, in a field, the sun burning just over our heads.

"No, I didn't think you would have," I said. "It begins with a young man who overthrows an evil tsar. The young man becomes the new tsar. He promises his subjects that their troubles will disappear if they obey him. 'What will this kingdom look like?' his subjects ask. The tsar considers it and then commissions his court painters to paint a picture of what the new kingdom will look like.

"First the painting is only a few paces wide, then a few dozen paces, then hundreds of paces. Soon the painting is miles and miles wide. Now, this is a big painting, no? Raw materials are essential to its success. The flax that would have clothed the tsar's subjects is requisitioned for the canvas. The wood that would have built houses is requisitioned for the frame.

"When the subjects are cold, the tsar tells them to look at the painting and see the beautiful coats and furs they will soon wear. When they sleep outside, he tells them to look at the painting and see the beautiful homes they will soon live in.

"The subjects obey the tsar. They know that if they turn their eyes from the painting and see what is around them, if they see the world as it is, the tsar will make them disappear in a big poof of smoke. Soon, all his subjects are frozen in place, unable to move, just like their reflections in the painting."

The boy started with a bored frown. He must have been accustomed to excellent storytelling. Literature for children receives less attention from the censors than literature for adults, so naturally our best writers flock to the genre.

"How many fingers am I holding up?" I asked.

He put up three.

I slid my hand father into his periphery. "How many now?"

He put up one.

"And now?"

He began turning his head, but I snapped. "Eyes ahead. Just like the people in a painting can't turn their heads to see who's behind them, neither can you."

"I can't see how many fingers," he said. "Your hand is too far back."

"That's right," I said. "That's where your father is. He's there, painted in the background, back behind your head, where you can't see. He's there, but you can never turn to look."

The coin scratching had silenced some time ago. When I looked up, the boy's mother was standing in the bedroom doorway. I followed her in. The photographs were lined neatly on the desk. In each one, a single face had been so violently scratched out that the desk's wood grain was visible through the hole. My eyes ached to see it...."

This within the first chapter, from there the extraordinary collection of interlocking short stories "form an astounding whole whose artfulness becomes increasingly clear as it goes on."

I highly recommend this book, as does the staff at Bolens.