Saturday, July 24, 2021

Bogdanova’s Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures: The New Normal?

Vera Bogdanova’s Павел Чжан и прочие речные твари (Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures) is a debut novel that feels like some sort of minor literary miracle. In Pavel Zhang, set a couple decades from where we are now, Bogdanova blends genres to create a dystopian novel with strong threads about the consequences of childhood trauma and the dangers of encroaching technology, both through Internet addiction and the threat of further government control after chipization. Most important, Bogdanova tells stories without letting her writing get either too ponderous or frivolous, and she includes slang, swearing, and sex so they feel organic – both in quality and quantity – to her text and her characters’ lives rather than props intended to shock or impress the reader. (Or herself!) I’m noticing more and more balance like this in my Russian reading; it feels like a relief. I hope it’s a new normal.

Bogdanova manages to work so much into four hundred pages that it’s far simpler to sum up the effect of the novel than its plot. But here goes; I’ll try not to spoil too much. Pavel Zhang is a coder at the Moscow office of a Chinese company that’s developing chips (the technology dates all the way back to 2029) that will be implanted into people; the chips are designed for “safety and convenience” (“безопастность и удобство” in the nominative). Pavel has no qualms about his work – he’s ambitious, sees himself as a clear-headed warrior, and even wants to go live in China – but his girlfriend, the redheaded Sonya (side note: I’m also finding a lot of redheads in recent novels written by women), who volunteers at a faith-based rehab center for Internet addicts, is part of a group that organizes guerilla protests against government tracking.

Pavel and Sonya met through volunteer work at an orphanage. Pavel himself is an orphanage veteran and the experience left him with deep, deep scars because of sexual abuse condoned by the orphanage’s administration. His mixed heritage also caused problems among his peers because his mother was Russian, his father Chinese; in one memorable flashback scene, he bites off the end of a bully’s nose. (His adult abuser, a pedophile, would have been lucky to escape with such a minor injury.) Given all this, it’s no surprise that Pavel feels he has no real place in the world; he also occasionally seems to drop out of reality. And no wonder, given the abuse that transformed him plus his long, focused hours at work. The work-related sections of Pavel Zhang almost have the feel of a production novel: there’s rivalry among IT employees as well as deadlines, presentations, and, of course, government hype about chipization. Bogdanova also includes a storyline about one of Pavel’s co-workers, Igor, who lives outside Moscow, takes care of his grandmother, and owns a coffeeshop with an “infodetox” mission: there’s no WiFi but there’s a bookstore that sells and lends books. Real printed books! Not everything goes smoothly for Igor, both in terms of action in the book and in terms of the novel’s structure, where his storyline feels a tiny bit lumpy. That’s not exactly a complaint, though, since Igor’s a good character (both literarily and, as it were, in his life) who has roles to play in the novel.

Those are the basics about Pavel Zhang. It would take at least a couple more pages and (far worse) a whole lot of spoilage to go into significant detail about Bogdanova’s vivid and well-chosen specifics of the main characters’ lives, their relationships, and their fates. Or to summarize more of her plot elements, things like the Russia-China alliance, the importance of “river,” the invocation of Chinese hell both in the name of Pavel’s employer (Diyu/Диюй) and Pavel’s thoughts about his life, the mention of a tourist’s selfie-drone (help!!), various forms of religion, and, of course, questions of freedom, monitoring, and use of personal data. And, on another summarizing level, the clashes that occur when memories, present realities, and virtual realities collide. I found in Pavel Zhang a novel that somehow manages to balance a lot of important material – orphandom, childhood abuse, the resulting trauma and pain, omnipresent technology, government control, and personal choices – in a story about characters and situations that feel appropriately real for fiction, all told in language that’s lively without attempting to be showy, controlled without feeling hermetically sealed.

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which also features a redheaded character, a self-described banshee. And then something else, I’m not sure what…

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual, with nothing further to report at this writing.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Fear Itself: A. Pelevin’s Pokrov-17

The short and simple version: Alexander Pelevin’s Pokrov-17, which recently won the National Bestseller Award, is a strange and scary novel that kept me up at night. Part of me would love to leave things at that: Pokrov-17 is also complex as well as impossible to describe in much of any detail without spoiling the entire book for prospective readers.

The longer, rather jumbled version: The basic plot is that journalist Andrei Tikhonov is sent from Moscow to the Kaluga area for an assignment in a strange, closed area known as Pokrov-17. And what a road trip that turns out to be. He wakes up in the closed zone, in his car, with a corpse. And I bet you can guess who the killer is. Weird things have been happening in Pokrov-17 – “pokrov,” incidentally, means “cover” or “veil” or “shroud” or “protection” and has an entry on Orthodox Wiki, here – for decades and there’s a clear connection between those odd events (utter blackouts, for example, that come on suddenly and last for varying durations) and a battle fought in the local Church of the Veil of Our Lady in 1941. What really creeped me out, though, is that people can transform (their DNA changes), taking on traits of animals (bird feet, horse tails, dog heads, and the like) after being exposed to a certain substance; the process takes about a month. Also: Tikhonov wrote a World War 2 novel with scenes from the local battle. And then there’s this: Tikhonov’s trip is taking place during the so-called October Events of 1993, which are mentioned many times. There’s also a mysterious institute studying strange phenomena in Pokrov-17, a man named Харон (Charon!) who gives new meaning to notions of Spiderman, and (pick one more item, Lizok!) some strange haloed shadows. All the local anomalies can be traced back to the church and the battle.

And fear. The darkness is the fear of death, a man known only as the Captain tells Tikhonov. Though there are other colorful characters, I don’t want to give away too much so I’ll just say there’s instability in the community, the metamorphosized beings tend to run amok, and Tikhonov finds himself pulled into a very special mission. At a certain point, I knew what was going to happen: everything made sense because I read my Propp back in grad school and have read other A. Pelevin books. Warped time (there are three temporal layers here) and weird metaphysics are Pelevin’s thing and it felt perfect that he set Pokrov-17 during the October Events, when people also felt pretty much in the dark about what was happening inside the Russian White House.

I’m not quite sure how Pelevin stitches all this together to make such an absorbing novel but the excerpts from Tikhonov’s book, Tikhonov’s accounts of his travel in Pokrov-17, and the various documents that Pelevin inserts – a review of Tikhonov’s novel, a Yeltsin speech, and interviews – give the book depth and a sense of fictional authenticity. So do cultural references, including bits of songs, like DDT’s outrageously popular Что такое осень (“What’s Autumn”), which just about anybody who lived in Russia in the early nineties can sing and which gets on Tikhonov’s nerves when the Captain keeps reciting/singing it in the car. And then the Captain quotes Alistair Crowley – “one is eternally alone” – which I found, only now, is from Diary of a Drug Fiend. Which leads me to this: My only regret is that I read Pokrov-17 too quickly. The cultural and historical references deserve more attention than I gave them but Pelevin creates such tremendous suspense with Tikhonov’s first-person narrative and, especially, the horror of the metamorphoses that I couldn’t help myself. Even without a more careful reading, though, Pokrov-17 left me plenty to think about, particularly the way many people fear history and/or use history to create fear.

It’s not fair to compare a writer’s various novels – particularly when the author, like A. Pelevin, is capable of writing varied books – but even if Pokrov-17 doesn’t possess the literary dazzle of The Four (previous post), which has the stellar combination of space travel, cats, and Vvedensky (among other things), it inhabited me thanks to its quick-paced plot plus all those horrifying metamorphoses as well as revelations that provide plenty of metaphysical, existential, religious, and cultural threads to pull. Which is to say that Pokrov-17 offered plenty to keep me up at night, making it a fitting companion for our June heatwave.

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s Anatomy of the Moon, Vera Bogdanova’s Pavel Zhang and Other River Creatures, and Eugene Vodolazkin’s book about a fictional island.

Disclaimers and Disclosures. The usual. I translated Masha Regina, by Vadim Levental, whose imprint at Gorodets published Pokrov-17.