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Near Zero

by Natan Dubovitsky

translated by Bill Bowler

Near Zero: synopsis

Yegor Samokhodov was happy as a youth in the Russian heartland but now, in Moscow, in middle age, he is estranged from his wife and daughter, and his low-paying job as an assistant editor is going nowhere. Looking for a way out, he joins a criminal gang, the Brotherhood of the Black Book. The Brotherhood is involved in forgery, theft of intellectual property, black-marketeering, intimidation, extortion, bribery, murder, etc.

Yegor’s girlfriend, Crybaby, invites him to a private screening of her new film, although she cannot attend. Yegor goes, hoping she may show up, and is horrified to discover he is watching a snuff movie where Crybaby is slowly murdered. After the screening, Yegor finds that Crybaby has disappeared. He sets out to Kazakhstan, to find and kill her murderer, the film director Albert Mamaev.

The story is set against a panoramic backdrop of Russia during and after the collapse of the USSR. Yegor’s quest brings him into contact with a cast of characters from a broad spectrum of Russian life, culture, history, politics and government.

Near Zero header links
Translator’s Foreword Cast of Characters Table of Contents


You, you, you and you, scions, lions, eagles and turkeys, does everyone have room? Is everyone ready, everyone comfortable? Can everyone see? Can you see the empty space where two clowns enter? They are a pair of unabashed buffoons, caustic comedians, masters of their calling, and their calling is simply to tease and taunt, to confuse and bemuse. However, they’re ready on occasion to play the tragedy, and the pastoral, and something... indefinite.

They fill the empty space with themselves and their words. For the umpteenth time, they retell those few tales, those few classic stories that were created long before you were born, tales you are forced to listen to, bored to tears, forced to hear again and again in new retellings, nasty and otherwise. What else are you all to do? How would you occupy yourselves if other stories were unthinkable and certain books impossible? All the words were in the beginning, and you only existed later, after the words.

Two clowns enter. Their names: Bim and Bom, Yin and Yang, Adam and Eve, Taira and Minamoto, Vladimir and Estragon, On and Off, Nietsche and The Void, Masha and the Bears. But these names are not real because the clowns have no real names, only roles.

Now they will tell you the story of Black Book Yegor, a story that spans the most ancient days when there was no Internet, to the current bright, null years. And if these clowns are to be honored, if you will respect them and grant them your attention (the less you have, the more valuable it is), then they can surely paint you a picture to inspire thoughts of the exalted. They will use a non-normative lexicon only when absolutely necessary and in the most restrained manner. They promise to keep the sex scenes and violence as brief as possible, and will elaborate extensively and with pleasure on the instructive monologs of the positive heroes... In short, they will retell for you now the unlikely adventures of Yegor and Crybaby.

Chapter 1: Raz

Are there a lot of words?

“Not especially.”

“Then read.”

“It’s called ‘Career’.” Listen:

Victor Olegovich arrived in Moscow a determined positive thinker from the sticks. He aimed to be an Einstein and enrolled in the university. However, such a joyless prospect opened before him, such mountainous obstacles, that he quickly consulted a list of Moscow apartment owners and found a wife; according to plan, he thought, but in reality, out of stupidity.

Also not according to plan, his new, not so young wife, turned out to be the lustful and greedy proprietor of a two-bedroom dive. Her disabled husband, former but still in favor, and grown son, who drank but was also in favor, were both still living there.

Victor Olegovich, now married to a homeowner, was crushed and reduced to complete slavery. He groveled at two jobs. He took care of the apartment. He supported his stinking rival, the paralytic who still considered himself the husband and called Victor Olegovich a peasant. He was pushed around by his muscular stepson-in-law and tormented by the exotic sexual cravings of his spouse.

These living conditions completely wore down Victor Olegovich. What happened next is not surprising. One day, he arrived at one of his jobs, was summoned to the office of one of his numerous bosses, and subjected to a humiliating harangue regarding some invoices that had been mixed up with remittances. The company records had been compromised, and business had suffered. On the spot, Victor Olegovich broke into sobs and went out of his mind.

Victor Olegovich’s madness gave him hope. First of all, it became clear to him that he was not Victor Olegovich but actually Berthold Schwarz. He immediately invented gunpowder, blew up his own workplace and, naturally, ended up in the hands of medical personnel.

The medical personnel, by means of physical and chemical intervention, rather quickly persuaded Victor Olegovich that he was not B. Schwarz at all and had re-invented gun powder in vain.

Victor Olegovich yielded to pressure, agreed that he was not Schwarz but, at the same time, did not recognize himself as Victor Olegovich. He crossed over into the ranks of authors, wrote “The Foundation Pit” in two days — a novel he had not previously read — and went about now as the writer Platonov.

At this point, the professoriate got involved. The novel was recognized as written with talent but not considered a new work. Victor Olegovich learned, sadly, that Platonov had died long ago, having succeeded in creating exactly the same text along with many others. Therefore he, Victor Olegovich, could not be the writer Platonov.

The patient yielded but once again did not recognize himself as Victor Olegovich. He threw himself into painting and, towards morning, a horribly inappropriate Madonna of Raphael appeared on the hospital wall.

The persecution of Raphael lasted a month. Victor Olegovich gave in again. He understood that he had gone too far. He began to choose more modest roles. He even bargained with the professoriate, begging permission at least to be patient X from the eighth ward, but the professoriate would not compromise.

“Incredibly sick,” said the professors to the medical personnel. “He’s ready to be whoever you please, just not himself. It’s time to finish with this.”

The professors continued, speaking now to the patient: “Victor Olegovich, you are Victor Olegovich and no one else. On that basis, you are categorically discharged.”

Once at large, Victor Olegovich wandered the streets so despondently that a legal temporary immigrant laborer strolling nearby had pity and offered to buy him a beer.

The air in the bar was hot and stale. In no time, for reasons unknown, a fight broke out next to them. Victor Olegovich’s accidental patron got pulled in and began to grapple with a student. The student was smaller than the temporary laborer and, fearing defeat, took out a knife. The laborer grabbed Victor Olegovich, picked him up and threw him at the student. For a moment, Victor Olegovich felt the ambiguous joy of free flight and then crash-landed on the student’s head. The student crumpled. Victor Olegovich lost consciousness.

He came to at the police station.

“A person was killed by you,” declared the police.

“But I didn’t kill him,” murmured Victor Olegovich.

“Right. You didn’t kill him, but he was killed by you.” The police clarified the situation and released Victor Olegovich.

But Victor didn’t leave. He settled down in jail, behaved himself, and enjoyed testifying at the trial. He especially liked the crime re-enactment when the temporary laborer, demonstrating for the court what had happened, picked Victor Olegovich up off the ground and slowly dropped him where the now deceased student had once stood.

In the course of the trial, the student’s knife wrapped in polyethylene, a broken chair, Victor Olegovich, and a smashed beer mug all figured in the capacity of material evidence. The laborer got eight years. Victor Olegovich had to leave jail and abandon the comfortable profession of material witness.

Coming out of the courthouse, Victor Olegovich avoided returning to the two-room despotism of the Moscow apartment owner and settled instead in an obscure area of woods outside the beltway.

At first, he lived in the woods as a philosopher but, because of the damp cold and the scarcity of berries, he gradually went feral and began to raid the surrounding areas in search of subsistence of the meat variety. In the gloomiest of the long winter nights, he was not fastidious about human flesh.

As a consequence of this transgression, his appearance changed. He grew horns, fangs, copious fur and, according to certain information, a tail, all bestowed upon Victor Olegovich by the Lord who, in His goodness, tends to the survival of all creatures great and small in our insufferable climate.

And in such a manner, the Lord also sent the feral Victor Olegovich the means for satisfying the most powerful earthly need: allowing him to drag off and abduct a fecund cleaning lady. Thus Victor Olegovich found a mate and, without slowing down in the least, he began to multiply catastrophically.

In two years, the population of Victor Olegoviches could be numbered in the hundreds of personages. Wandering flocks of these bloodthirsty creatures ravaged the area around Moscow, which led to the complete collapse of outdoor gardening and horticulture.

In the end, despite protests from the Greens, the authorities issued hunting permits for the Victor Olegoviches.

Hunters from around the world spent more than one bloody season near the capital. Their efforts were successful and, these days, you’re not likely to see even the one original Victor Olegovich in our parts. He shies away from encounters with people, hides in the thick bush and, according to the assurances of ethnographers, the very fact of his existence has become the subject more of suburban folklore than of the classical natural sciences.

* * *

“That’s it?”

“Well, yes.”

“And what was that beeping noise I kept hearing?”

“My battery is drained. It’s the signal. Did it bother you?”

“A battery? In you?”

“In the phone.”

“Oh. I thought maybe you had a pacemaker or some device in your skull. But the story, you know, seemed a bit moldy. It’s a little anecdote from the Soviet regime. No harm done.”

“We can dust it off like new.”

“Well, how much do you want for it?”

“This story is good. I wrote it for myself when I was still a student and a writer, and poet, and philosopher, twenty years ago. So you are sort of right about the mold. Twenty-five thousand dollars. And I was a rock musician, too.”

“I know, I know you were. There are others now. And there were others then. Whatever you were or weren’t, it didn’t stick. It was between you and yourself but, on a mass scale, it was not significant. I won’t pay twenty-five thousand.”

“How about rubles?”

“OK, I’ll take it. But why did you give in so easily?”

“The product is not commercial. It’s for the connoisseur. You know, yourself, people want something either completely abstruse or pop. I have a lot of this stuff. A hundred of them. I’ll link them all together for you by the end of the year. Let’s settle.”

“Why link them together?”

“Because you’ll like it. Will you publish them yourself or place them?”

“We’ll try to place it in The Review. It comes out before the end of the month.”

“Will I get reviews, comments?”

“Of course: from Weissman, positive; from Weissberg, negative. A famous athlete will say in an interview that he read it and couldn’t put it down. On TV, a mid-level politician will make a positive remark. And well, the Internet takes care of itself. In that garbage heap, whatever you want, there’s plenty and it’s cheap. In general, we’ll do the standard package. Twenty-five.”

“Dollars, I hope.”


“I won’t take Euros.”’

“Think about it. Weissman, Weissberg, a famous athlete. Millions will sing your praises, and you’re worried about Euros.”

“I’ll take it if they pay dollars.”

“OK. The Review can afford it. Stories are not their main source of income. They’ll survive.”

“I want to use a pseudonym.”

“Again? Why publish under a pseudonym? Everybody already more or less knows it’s you. Rebranding is a needless expense and a risk. We’d better send it to the top five. The Review almost passed last time. The Chief Editor there was a front-line soldier and Orthodox.”

“What do you mean, front-line soldier? He’s thirty years old.”

“Thirty-two. He fought in Chechnya. Medal for bravery and all that.”

“Since he’s a hero, we’ll charge ten more. But since he’s gay, we’ll knock off nine. That leaves plus one. I won’t take less.”

“How do you know he’s gay?”

“You told me.”

“I did?”

“Just now. Front-line soldier and that other thing.”


“Well, yes.”

“Um, OK. Plus one.”

“Sanya will deliver the money. You want cash, right? He’s my driver. Although, no. He begged off. Something with his leg, or with his wife. It’s always like that with him... first his leg, then his wife. My bodyguard can do it, what’s his name? I forgot. I should remember, but... Well, you know, the six-foot guy. You know him. The first time you sold me a story, we went to celebrate. Remember, he pulled us apart. When you bad-mouthed Pushkin, and I stood up and broke your nose. For Pushkin.”

“I broke yours, too. I don’t remember the bodyguard. But it’s not important. Let him deliver the money, tomorrow before noon.”



“I just remembered. His name is Sanya. Same as Pushkin.”

“And same as your driver.”

“Yes. All Sanyas.”

“Goodbye, Pavel Evgenyevich.”

“So long, Yegor.”

Proceed to Chapter 2...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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