Near Zero

Translator’s Foreword

by Bill Bowler

Vladislav Surkov is a prominent Russian government official and spokesman. He has served as First Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration, as Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and continues to be a close personal adviser of President Vladimir Putin. He publishes articles and essays on current affairs in the Russian press and blogosphere.

Upon publication of Near Zero in 2009 in the magazine Russian Pioneer, the editors received an anonymous tip that the unknown author named in the byline, Natan Dubovitsky, was actually one of their contributors, Vladislav Surkov. Surkov publicly and vehemently denied it. He has written a preface to the novel under his own name and has reviewed the novel more than once, mocking the “absurd” idea of ascribing authorship to him.

Dressed flamboyantly, Surkov attended the debut performance of the theatrical version of Near Zero at the Moscow Art Theater. Surkov’s wife’s name, by the way, is Natalya Dubovitskaya. Surkov has written that he asked his wife if she were the author of Near Zero. She glared back at him without replying.

In a review article, “Corrupted Shakespeare,” Surkov writes of Near Zero:

The author obviously has nothing to say. So he just clowns around. Beneath the retelling, the rehashing and rebinding, there is absolute emptiness. It’s as if the book were written on wrapping paper in which is packed a cold, hollow void. This unknown Natan is inflated to the size of this year’s biggest literary mystification. There is no novel. There’s a quasi-novel, a doll, a mummy. A fiction.

There is a tradition of “mystification” in Russian literature, of real authors’ conveying works of fiction to readers through invented authors and “editors.” To take just one example, Gogol is the pen name of Nikolai Teternikov. The short stories in Gogol’s Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka were “collected” by Rudi Panko, a fictional editor and Ukrainian beekeeper, who had received the manuscripts, we are told, from friends. One of the stories in the collection, “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and his Aunt,” breaks off abruptly and remains a fragment because, the reader is told, Panko’s wife, who cannot read, used some of the pages to bake a pie.

Near Zero owes a great stylistic and thematic debt to Gogol, and is in the fantastic, satirical line of Russian literature that stems from Gogol. The other great line, straightforward Realism, stems from Pushkin.

There are numerous references in the text of Near Zero to Gogol’s works. The hero of Near Zero, Yegor Samokhodov, is repeatedly compared to Chichikov, the rogue swindler protagonist of Gogol’s Dead Souls. Dubovitsky’s blend of real and fantastic, his acerbic irony, his acidic satire, his portrait gallery of grim caricatures personifying social vices in their Russian variant, are all Gogolian literary traits.

The other and perhaps greatest literary influence on Near Zero is Hamlet. As Surkov has written, “The author of this novel is an unoriginal Hamlet-obsessed hack.”

Yegor is compared by the narrator to Hamlet, and there are numerous overt and concealed references to Hamlet in the text of Near Zero, including the epigraph and the opening scene.

In “Corrupted Shakespeare,” Surkov writes:

How does Natan Vasilevich re-tell Hamlet? Impudently, sometimes with curse words. The Russian gangster [i.e., Yegor], like the Danish prince, does not really understand whether he is to be or not to be; whether something has happened for which he must take revenge, or whether it was just a dream; and if something did happen, is it worth committing the sin of revenge for it. And he hesitates, berates himself for cowardice, and hesitates again. And in the end, he takes revenge, but as if forced to do it, as if in a dream, not completely wanting to, almost accidentally.

Near Zero is extremely challenging to translate. The text is full of irony, ambiguity, imagery, wordplay, and slang. It makes encyclopedic cultural and historical references, some specifically Russian and others more general, ranging from the Khazar occupation of southern Rus’ to medieval Japanese warfare to Russian Futurist poets to pop music to fashion-designer brand names to Wallace Stevens.

The prose is convoluted, non-linear, quasi-grammatical, oblique, somewhat chaotic and sometimes awkward. Subjects and predicates get buried within lengthy strings of subordinate clauses. Here’s such a sentence translated literally:

He heard what he could not sing, nor retell, but heard clearly and knew precisely — through the dusty noise and obstacles, crowding in vain around modernity/temporality — triumphant, flat and motionless, like the frescoes of Giotto, the laughter of primordial silence, long radiating, for an eternity before us and to our day ringing out for the few whose hearing is crippled in a certain way.

Russian text

The Russian language supports, with some effort, such ponderous sentence structure by means of parallel declensions and inflections. The translator must break up these strings of clauses into separate sentences in English. Perhaps something like this:

He heard what he could not sing and could not re-tell, but he heard it clearly. Through the noise and dusty obstacles of modernity and temporality that crowd around life in vain, he heard the triumphant laughter of the primordial silence. It was flat and immovable, like Giotto’s frescoes. It had radiated for an eternity before we appeared, and rings out to this day for the few whose hearing is crippled in a special way.

In Near Zero, complex sentence structure is used to convey a complex narrative. The scenes are out of chronological order. Flashbacks and flashforwards are not marked. The plot is fragmented; it jumps around, frequently interrupted by interpolated stories within stories. There are lacunae, intentionally unfilled spaces. The reader is left to reconstruct, fill in, and clarify the whole from the disordered and distorted fragments.

By using convoluted sentences to tell a story in pieces, by placing the pieces out of order, by leaving gaps, by weaving fantasy and reality together without distinction, the story takes on a dreamlike, delirious quality. From the murk of this delirium emerges a passionate, nostalgic, but starkly satirical portrait of modern Russia in which the objects of the author’s scorn are sure to recognize themselves.

Copyright © 2020 by Bill Bowler

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