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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 Two: Dva

While they were talking, a thick, sluggish downpour loomed behind the high-rise. Flickering with infrequent, silent lightning and flashing like a few words about the news, the storm did not reach the city center. It crawled around the edge and got stuck there somewhere like a heavy glob, sticky, tepid and moist. But there it pressed and splattered on the windows, trying to get inside, having pounded the streets since morning. The air was stale, difficult to breathe, greasy, smoky, tangible, even visible, as only we have in Moscow.

Yegor had always lived and thrived in the cold and wind. Heat made him sick. In his apartment, numerous late model air conditioners and fans did not let the temperature rise higher than 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in summer, the few guests who sometimes visited Yegor arrived in winter clothes, some with earmuffs.

Yegor had to go meet with two people: first with Algoltsov, an alcoholic, poet, translator, and user of cocaine; then with Nikita Marievna, a journalist. That is, he had to walk one hundred paces through the oven. Both meetings were scheduled in the “Diamond,” a restaurant on the ground floor of Yegor’s building. He lived on the roof in a very expensive addition.

The “Diamond,” which had never changed its name, had changed owners, kitchen and interior three times:

At the end of the Eighties, it was the first Soviet restaurant open at night. An inexperienced customer, the sucker type, unwittingly coming in for sustenance, would be taken captive by an inattentive, disheveled, slightly drunk waitress, the bimbo type. They didn’t hand the customer a menu, but told him in secret that for a separate payment, they had “a nice cut of meat, a nice piece of fish, pan-fried chicken, vodka, and semi-sweet champagne.”

On stage, some intimidated musicians, the busker type, sang about the shores of the Don, a branch of pine, and their handkerchief moist with tears. The source of intimidation were patrons of the gangster type, especially the ones who came in nightly to celebrate someone’s mother’s birthday, people by the name of Boot, Daddy, and Goga the Huguenot.

In the Nineties, the element bruised from injections began to disappear, gradually shot down by young, progressive-thinking police officers. In the “Diamond,” they made appropriate Euro-renovations. They offered lobster and steaks, and the waiters sobered up.

During these shock-troop times, the gangsters improved themselves, wiped themselves off, polished themselves up, and smoothed themselves down like pebbles on a white sea beach. A master of life would go to the restaurant ruddy, full-bodied and pig-eyed, never having sat in prison and therefore fearless, sentimental, and thus a patron of the arts to the degree allowed by his modest conception of the beautiful.

At that time, Yegor had settled into his rooftop apartment, high above the “Diamond.” At first he would drop by on Fridays to get drunk, since it was close. Then later it became a habit, and he would frequently come down to have a bite. It was just like being in his own kitchen.

Towards the beginning of the zero-zero mutations, the lads underwent a complete transformation. The gold chains and bracelets bought with foreign currency grew radically lighter. The tattoos faded like frescoes from the Middle Ages and became a rarity. Some learned English and refrained from Lacoste and Versace. Wives in government employ and ballerina-mistresses glittered here and there. “Handsome” and “Puffy” were born and went off to grow up in Switzerland.

The “Diamond” became famous in the modern mode. It became as stylish and tasteful as a person who was bored, never hungry in his life, and never worried about money could possibly think up.

In this third iteration of the “Diamond,” Crybaby first appeared to Yegor. She was accompanied by three bozos — one black, one white, and one slightly platinum — all of whom looked severe and expensive, like grave diggers who had just counted their profits from a plague epidemic in an expensive quarter of the city.

It seemed strange to Yegor. At first glance, he noticed the black and white fellows, and Crybaby seemed to seep through them like a quiet surge of water, not all of her at once, but just a rough sketch, a slightly hoarse voice. It was only later that there was suddenly all of her, improbable, unaccustomed, unusual, powerful like an attack — his love, or his death?

Thus began Crybaby, the beautiful catastrophe, the horrifying carousel that seized him and spun him with ever growing fury. She took his breath away. She made things gloomy, then clear, amusing and frightening. From these frequent mood changes, the trembling veil between life and death grew more transparent all the faster — whether from his love or from despair.

One of the gravediggers turned out to be a classmate of Yegor’s, and not a gravedigger, actually, but a procurer. Of kerosene. He walked over and said hello. Yegor pretended he remembered him, though he didn’t quite. Yegor dined in their company, was introduced. She said, “I’m Crybaby.” It didn’t occur to him to be surprised, to try and find out her real name. Even if it was absurd, there you had it, and maybe for some reason it was her real name.

Later he understood that the semi-imaginary and non-homogenous classmate was the middle grave digger, kerosene procurer, and her lover. The younger gravedigger was her husband; and the older, her brother, though maybe enough of a cousin that at times, purely mechanically, he fell into the role of second lover.

That evening, Yegor was very talkative. It was enough for her to understand how incompatible they were. They had nothing in common, absolutely nothing. But in an instant he had her, had attracted her, and she sensed that he would not release her alive. It was not him, not him, but something nuclearly bright, its fairytale weight distorting all surrounding time, a supernova world, attracting and spinning her light-thoughts — was this distortion his love?

In those days, he had barely crawled out of a dozing divorce. He had bought a house for his former wife and built himself a luxurious apartment on top of a crumbling tenement. He was finally left alone, on the roof, up high like the flying ship with the propeller from the movies. He obtained the right to see his daughter 2 (two) times a week, and saw her... much less, because there was no time, and he forgot.

He absolutely did not want to love anyone. Crybaby arrived inopportunely, like a new battle for a wounded warrior who is tattered, burned and scarred from yesterday’s combat and, after falling asleep on a halt for a moment, is awakened and ordered to fight again.

Proceed to Chapter 3...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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