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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 32: Tridtsat’ Dva

And following silently behind her words came her own familiar warmth. It poured lovingly down his collar, overflowed his heart in a moment, and spread in a pleasant tingling sensation along his spine, his stomach, and below. It warmed all his body’s extremities, penetrated into the most secluded and forbidden places and, from there, began to rise back up in a boiling flood to his heart, throat, and head, straightening his penis, making his blood and thoughts foam, rinsing the burning sun of his first spring from his petrifying memory.

He filled with joy, as if remembering something of utmost importance without which it was somehow awkward to live. It was as if some truth had opened to him, everything had added up, some long awaited e=mc2 had appeared and explained everything. His ungovernable mind, spinning in corkscrews, suddenly stopped on the brink of disaster. It was possible, finally, to reach the solid ground of faith and the pre-heated indifference that comes with it.

And Yegor made a speech: for himself, for Yana, and “for anyone who might want to hear.”

It’s very good, Sara, that you just spoke about flowers. You’re right about that. That’s how it is. I had never given you flowers. No, I had never even drawn flowers for you, never given them to anyone. And now I understand why, Sara. I understand! Give us some champagne, quickly, quickly, any kind.

Once when I was a child, in July, in the heat, I heard the silence of the world. But I’ll tell you about the silence later. I’m talking now about flowers. On that hot July day, from underneath childhood, through the thickness of life, I saw death. It circled like a slimy, wiry, predatory comet, high above. It radiated gloom and made my life senseless for a hundred years in advance. I was little, but somehow guessed at once that no matter how much I strengthened my body, no matter what I used to enrich my soul, no matter what treasures I stored in my heart, death would take it all.

I could not reconcile myself to this, and life began to sadden me. Every morning was poisoned, every love gave sadness, from every position I saw how the comet’s circle grew lower and narrower.

It seemed strange to me that people didn’t drop their families, jobs, fishing, theater, books, war, love, all this nonsense, and immediately start organizing a plan to overcome death or, if no plan was possible, then engage in collective euthanasia.

But the opposite was true. People were unwilling even to speak of these things and calmly devoted themselves to struggling blindly with each other. They barricaded themselves behind stacks of penny-ante affairs and mountains of empty cares and worries, and behind piles of broken bodies. In order to hide from fear, to wait submissively without showing how nauseous they felt, to deal courageously with trifles.

It’s as if we’re standing in a long line to see the dentist or proctologist, everyone feeling awkward and scared. The more quickly the line moves, the more cheerful the conversations about who vacationed where, and is war with the Eskimos worth it, and can we go dancing in clubs this evening, and tomorrow, after lunch, launch the IPO, no rush.

But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about flowers, flowers. Damn, I don’t know how to say it. In short, I began to curse everything and to live the opposite. As a sign of protest. So, it’s accepted that you give flowers to women. They appreciate that. Therefore I never gave flowers to anyone.

Then there’s the custom of getting married, patiently exasperating man with woman, woman with man, both with children, children with each other. And of all the feelings associated with marriage, the most important is guilt. So I think, no, as soon as you see what it’s like, you get divorced.

So, no normal work. And no childhood friends, no modern books, no widely held opinions, no toasts to your health, popular biases. Just between us, the first time I knocked off some old geezer, it was in order to be different from everyone else. I only found out later that everyone else was like that, too, or at least many were. If you didn’t get your own hands dirty, then you lived off of those who did. You occupied yourself with humanism under their protection.

For many years, I lived this contrary life, and only now understood that protest was not the point, and that it was not the devil of contradiction who had confused me. In fact, the only thing I understand is that the usual roads and paths that people rush along in droves, the trajectories to known orbits, all lead to death. For sure.

If you are a bookkeeper, a government official, a stamp collector, a soldier, a chimney sweep, a writer. If you long for a cozy home, play cards on Saturdays, chat about football, and vacations in August, and promotions at work. If you’re concerned about what Princess Marya Alexeyevna might say, or about praise from the boss, about arousing your lover. If you’re a student at twenty, a young specialist at thirty, an energetic boss at forty, a respected leader at fifty, an authority and mentor at sixty, an esteemed bufoon at seventy, and remain something presentable at eighty, then you’re a happy man.

But if all is not running so smoothly, or not smoothly at all but in the same system of coordinates, you are unhappy. And happy and unhappy people are mortal. It means all known paths lead to the abyss.

So I behaved contrarily and did not want what everyone wanted because, if you live like everyone else, then your time will come to die, because everyone who lives like that, like everyone else, dies. And if you don’t live like all the rest, then maybe your time won’t come.

It’s not an established fact, of course, but at least there’s hope. Suddenly the path that no one has trod, or which has not yet even been laid, runs around death. Suddenly, non-existence is just a pothole which is possible to go around. Or a mountain, where there’s a pass. Or a comet, but there’s sky beyond.

Maybe each new generation thinks it can remake the world and not live the way their fathers did, can turn towards the light and not enter the darkness where those before them have gone, not go where the others have all gone. For if you go there, you’ll perish for sure. Better to go where the few go, or where no one goes. Perhaps you will be transported immediately to where time is no more, where there is always light.

That’s why I had not given you flowers. And that’s why tomorrow I’m flying to Karagaly, to your Strutsky, into the jaws of the Khazars. Quia absurdum.

Crybaby left me and, before that, did not love me, betrayed me, put nothing into it. I hate her and sometimes my hate is so strong, I take it for love. There is not one rational reason to take risks to rescue her or get revenge for her. That’s how it is. It’s all true, but precisely because of that — not like everyone else, irrationally, without delay — to Karagaly!”

Yegor grew quiet. His last words rang in his head and he realized he had gotten excited and been speaking very loudly. Yana Nikolaevna blushed and looked at him without understanding.

The celebrities at neighboring tables; the paparazzi taking pictures through the windows from the street; those frozen in place where Yegor’s speech had reached them, one with a tray, one with the bill; waiters with their mouths open; the sommelier steering the delegation of rabbis to the Chateau Petrus; the bartender using his long fingers to stir the ice cubes, the crumpled mint, the slices of lime, and the lemon rind in the well-known radio host’s cocktail and struggling to remember if he’d washed his hands after the toilet; the young school teachers who had taken out micro-loans to start small businesses, having purchased makeup and bright-colored blouses on borrowed funds, and put aside the rest to pay the bill if the business went under; those who had come for the first time to engage in minor prostitution and self-slander without first forming a legal entity; yes, and all the rest of the patrons in the Diamond... Everyone stopped talking, stopped chewing, and turned their heads and eyes towards Yegor, who stood frozen in place as if he had just exclaimed, “There you have it, babe. It makes no sense.”

“The dude let ’em have it,” marveled a stranger on the right. Along the bar, an anonymous, salty clapping broke out and broke off in confusion. In the far corner, someone sniffed with an Armenian accent. The rabbis declined the Petrus. The waiters went into motion. Abdalla sobbed. The radio host sat down with the schoolteachers.

The celebrities and models jabbered about who was vacationing where, or where they were planning to vacation this month, and where next month, and whether to take along the nannies, the bodyguards, and the chefs to the Caribbean or Sardinia or whether it was better and cheaper to rent on the spot from the locals, although the most important things was that it be better, and not that it be cheaper, because it wasn’t about the money, and there’s no happiness in money.

Yegor and Warhola left the restaurant. They all but ran down the street, panting with desire. They disappeared into the elevator moist with sweat, as if they had already made love to each other on the street. Right there in the elevator, they undressed, just a little, just enough so that he was able to enter her. Coupled, they went up to his apartment. Without separating their bodies, they searched for the key, opened the door, and tumbled into the vestibule.

They got completely undressed and pounded against each other so long and so sweetly that Yegor thought about giving her flowers. When they had finished, he was even getting ready to say something like, “I love you,” but Sara jumped up as if scalded. “Oh no! We forgot Abdalla in the restaurant!”

“Not we. You. But calm down. He’s not going anywhere. I’ll call.” Yegor dialed the number of the Diamond.

“OK. He’s sitting there by himself, hasn’t asked to eat. Forgive me. They’re saying they can take him home if we order dessert for two. Tell me, what’s his address?”

“I’ll take him myself.”


Yana Nikolaevna told him. “They don’t have the keys, and there’s no one to let them in. I told you there was no one for me to leave him with today.”

Yegor, straightening up a bit, suggested, “We’ll tell the waiter to come here, give him the key, and after they drop him off, to bring the key back here. An hour and a half for the whole thing.”

“It’s not necessary. No, that’s enough.”

Yana got dressed, military style, in under a minute. She left, sniffling and blinking her eyes from tears, in a most un-captain-like way.

Yegor logged onto the Internet to check the weather in Karagaly and find out how to get there quickly.

Proceed to Chapter 33...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 869...

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