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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

Chapter 29: Dvadtsat' Devyat’

Yegor told Igor about Crybaby, about the film, about “Our Own,” and about his apprehensions.

“And?” The chief did not understand. “What do you want from me?”

Yegor explained. “I told you. Chepanov was there. Erdman. You are personally acquainted with them, and I’m not. You know lots of people. You have connections at the very top, in the FSB, the MVD, in the press. You can find out what kind of studio this ‘Kafka’s Pictures’ is, what kind of director Mamaev is, what’s going on there.”

“For what? You actually think they killed Crybaby and made a film of the murder? Nonsense. Who needs it? It’s all special effects. Too natural, not natural enough,” the chief muttered. “What do you and I know of such things? This is movies, not books. You are supposing something that is extremely unlikely.”

“The least likely thing is exactly what always happens to me. It’s contrary to science, but I live unscientifically and think that only mu mesons and medusas behave according to science.

“Look around: the universe is a rather severe place. The probability of creation and survival of life in the midst of this emptiness, cowering around absolute zero, is practically negligible, close to absolute nil.

“But life, nonetheless, lives and even ignites. Then, to find yourself, among six billion people, in the small collective of those who smoke vintage cigars and gorge on jars of foie gras turns out to be more difficult than finding yourself with the unsuccessful majority in barracks in Astrakhan, in Parisian suburbs, or in the open spaces of the Republic of Chad. It’s more difficult, but we are here and not there.

“Strange, that two quiet lads like us, nearsighted readers of Wallace Stevens, Susskind and White, have left a quiet editorial department and gone out onto the open road to bash people’s skulls for the sake of foie gras and stylish trousers. It’s unlikely, unscientific, but it’s happened.

“It’s extremely unlikely that they killed Crybaby, but what if they did?” Yegor insisted. “And if they didn’t, then maybe they’ve made her a porno slave and are holding her with threats or psychotropics. She would not let them film her like that of her own free will. You know her.”

“Even if it’s so, what are you going to do? Save her?” The Chief did not comprehend. “What is she to you? She has her own life. Don’t be offended, but you meant nothing to her. She betrayed you with not-quite-oligarchs and film stooges.

“Much better to think about this: new literary empires are being built. New young authors are showing great promise. We go after them now and, in three years, we’ll amass a ton of money.

“These future leaders of society’s opinion will be completely at our disposal. Molotko, Drantsev, Pletskaya: you’ve heard of them? They’re just starting. Now is the time to take them. You should take them, Yegor. You have experience, persistence. We won’t split 70/30 like before, but in half.

“People don’t nourish themselves on Chekhov, Basho, and the fake Sergeich. Soon they’ll be reading these Molotkovs exclusively, and only scholars with low blood pressure will remain to deal with Chekhov and councilor Takamura.

“I’ll think about it.” Yegor turned to go.

“You’ll think about it? Don’t think, okay? I didn’t mean you should really think. Once you start thinking, you get old. When I shot at Fedor Ivanovich on this very spot, I probably wasn’t thinking.”

“That was in this room?” Yegor was stunned.

“Dostoevsky, de Quevedo, Chekhov, councilor Takamura...” said the Chief, as if speaking to himself. “All these bespectacled Dostoevsky specialists and Chekhov scholars, connoisseurs of the elegant, lovers of babbling about the exalted, these blessed little intellectuals — if only they knew what had been done to provide them the rational, the good, the eternal.

“Right now, some kid is studying his lesson, chipping away at a botany textbook, at a chapter on some kind of mosses and lichen, cattails and ferns, and he doesn’t know anything about the sordid business behind this textbook.

“Remember how the Crockodilers soaked our Pasha? And how they abducted Goga Gugenot from the Tolstoyans, tortured him three days in a garage, and then hanged him in Neskuchny Park? How they themselves lost Walt and Minesweeper, and who knows how many bulls?

“And remember the war for Nabokov sales in south Moscow? Seven corpses. Or for retail sales of Tiutchev? Between the Tolstoyans and the Sunshiners, who wormed their way into anything and everything then?

“Well, we got by then with two stores blown up at night, with no casualties. Remember when we fought with the Crockodilers for the right to wholesale avant-garde authors. Kharms and Vedensky sold well, like Crown Royal. Eleven dead. A record! There’s your beautiful, there’s your rational, your eternal and all that, religion, politics, the supply of beets.

“And you, I hear, have now decided to live righteously, without shooting anybody. I thought they were lying, but I see now it’s true. Yes?”

“Yes,” said Yegor quietly.

“Have you forgotten the secret of the Black Book?”

“I haven’t forgotten. The only words written in the Black Book are: ‘Gold is made from lead’.”

“You remember. You got it right,” the Chief praised him. “And how will you make money, if you don’t want to shoot?”

“I’ve already earned enough for half a year without any shooting,” whispered Yegor.

“Eh, not quite, brother. Others are doing the shooting for you. Me, for example.”

“Are you suggesting I owe you?” Yegor challenged the Chief.

“You’re a fool, brother. Go. The visit’s over. I’ll find out what I can about your movie and about Crybaby, though I don’t understand what’s in it for you. Give me two weeks. I’ll call you. We’ll be in touch.”

Proceed to Chapter 30...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 866...

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