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. 

* Update on August 6: A mea culpa here: Pavel Zhang is only a debut for Bogdanova under her real name; she has written and published science fiction/fantasy novels using pseudonyms. (I feel especially silly about this because I even googled to check on "debut"... but apparently hit incorrect information first!)

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.


  1. Sounds wonderful and I hope I get a chance to read it; thanks for the post!

  2. I liked it a lot, Languagehat, despite the slight lumpiness, though I did appreciate that plotline for showing certain old-fashioned aspects of Bogdanova's not-too-distant future.

  3. Hadn't heard of this, and it sounds interesting. Thank you.

    1. I hope you enjoy it if you read it, Unknown. (Though "enjoy" isn't always the word here, given some of the difficulties Pavel experiences...)

      The novel was a finalist for the 2021 National Bestseller Award.