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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 3: Tri

In this momentous “diamond” of a place, Yegor’s meeting with Algoltsov was scheduled. Yegor sat at a little table beneath a TV screen in a picture frame, showing an image of Engineer Zworykin that periodically lost its resolution. The restaurant was occupied by models chewing on food. These were the latest versions of our national babes, configured in unheard-of ways, modernized, having gone through careful pre-sale preparation, and now mixed in among connoisseurs and buyers.

The place was way too diamondy for an alcoholic, but Yegor refused to have Algoltsov in his home due to sanitary and hygienic considerations. To meet further away would mean to drag through the heat somewhere or other. And it couldn’t be put off, since the comrade owed him big money. He was a huge disappointment.

Yegor glanced at the waiter’s watch. Eight. One hour for the debtor, one hour for the journalist. Then home for an on-line chat with Crybaby. All OK, if they don’t run late.

A foul odor wafted through the room. The debtor was on time. Yegor turned around, and so it was: the poet had arrived. Puffy upper lip, blackheads on his cheek, gray whiskers, gray hairs mixed with some tiny rubbish in his nose and ears. Gray eyes. A stained tie used, apparently, in place of a toothbrush and handkerchief. Maybe also to shine his shoes.

Yegor stopped looking at him and spoke, eyes askance. Yegor was not eating and ordered a vodka for Algoltsov to switch him on. Algoltsov ate air, smoked moist cigarettes, and drank hot tea. The ashes fell and the tea spilled on the same ill-fated tie. At the same time, all of the vodka, to the last drop, went down the hatch as if by appointment. The tea was drunk country style, with chomping, gurgling, and lip-smacking. After each long drag on the cigarette, the poet was wracked with pathetic coughing. Only the vodka was assimilated quietly, victoriously, and safely.

Algoltsov was a spiritual man, and his sturdy spirit flowed through the room, swirling in a hellish mist. The models and their admirers did not react at once, apparently taking Algoltsov’s miasma for the aroma of an elite cheese or a vintage cigar, but gradually they began to fidget, to turn and whisper among themselves.

“You’re a big letdown,” began Yegor, looking at the picture of Engineer Zworykin.

Algoltsov replied by taking a gulp of vodka and frowning.

Yegor continued, “Sergeich can’t wait. He, as opposed to you, is governor. He works according to plan.”

Agoltsov took another gulp, a sip of tea, and splashed a little on his tie.

“In September, there’s a regional book convention. Sergeich organized it himself, for himself. Strong-armed the sponsors. He promised the public to celebrate his nomination with a new booklet of poems. And where is it, the booklet?”

Algoltsov took another gulp, puffed on his cigarette and coughed with a groan.

“The intelligentsia is in love with him: a governor-poet, poet and tsar in one person. But there’s no booklet. It’s a threat to his poll numbers.”

Algoltsov took another gulp and, thank God, said something, loudly. The models stopped whispering.

I dream I am falling...
As if from some mound or hill...
Over me, high above as in childhood, is a July morning...
But below — darkness.
I don’t know if I jumped or was pushed
But whatever I try to grab on to, it's all the same:
The rusty, hundred-ton autumn drags me... to the bottom.
To cling to something... to stick to something, to slow the fall...
I am not able... and each second I go further down.
Mama, look! I’m falling...

“Here’s another one:

From under the fragments of city wind, you suddenly sprout.
Through the cracking and crowing of the crowd,
You discern the reflection of tomorrow’s century
In the mocking silence of fate.
And there, where your dream so victoriously decays,
In an extended September, on the lunar sphere, light, like confusion,
You fly, to gaze at life from the heavens. So look down
At nimble harlequins, brilliant dwarves, rare swine, cheap mages, overblown giants,
Frolicking in the burning tent.
Look how night is unseasonably bitter,
How the rage of the day is mercilessly simple,
How, locked in your own empty freedom, you are alone,
Brought to tears, to the bottom, to the ground.
Look, life goes along. Look, it passes.
Look, it’s gone...

“And another one:

Would you see how the wind, the wind of a thirsty dream, comes from the wild field, tartly wafting of life, drives the herd of inflorescences along the quicksand of burnt noon towards the shallow downpour.

Would you see how the sun redeems spring from the Tatar sky. You would know what this May cost us. You would understand that sadness is exalted. You would sing a different song.

You would suddenly discover the ashes over your head and the flame beneath your feet. You would run from your home, the better to hide, to choke, but not here and not with these tears. And like unrealizable tenderness, find a different abyss.

“There are no more.”

“Only three? Not enough for a booklet,” sighed Yegor, threateningly.

“Three, but good ones. Who said there have to be a lot of poems in a booklet?” snarled Agoltsov. He took a gulp, a bite, another gulp, and launched into a speech.

“Go to hell, you and your Sergeich. Give me freedom. Arise, o prophet! Sergeich is no poet, he’s a crook, and you’re his accomplice. I’ll sue you. He’ll be thrown in prison, into a hole in the ground. The governorship is not enough for him. He’ll rake in book lovers, the son of a bitch, and the book haters. Interviews, awards. And these are my poems, mine, not his. Let everyone hear the truth!”

“The poems were written by you, but they belong to him. He paid you for them, you fool. He’s the poet, and you are under contract to him, like a student of Michelangelo. And I...” Yegor retorted to the image of Zworykin. The engineer lost resolution.

“He’s rich, famous. And I’m a beggar and unknown. A wanker. And gay. And a drug addict. And a liberal. Yegor, I belong to all the high-risk groups. I most likely have AIDS and the delirium tremens, and all the little manias from the psychiatry textbook. Give me back freedom. I want to be rich and famous, too, since I’m the genius.” Agoltsov grinned.

“First of all, you are not all poor. Sergeich pays you a good rate per line. And how much do we get? What publisher, what journal will pay you that? You’re always drinking and snorting, giving handouts to your children. Secondly, fame is empty. You’re a genius, meaning you’re above mundane vanities. Thirdly, you still owe a screenplay for Sergeich’s niece, the one who’s finishing film school. You promised to write it yourself, or to make a deal with Bryzgovich.”

“I sent it—”

“Hack work.” Yegor cut him off.

“How would they know if it’s hack work or not? Khlebnikov, me, the poet Pantalykin - it’s all the same to him. And it’s the same thing with the chick.”

“You’re right. They don’t know much,” Yegor patiently explained. “But they have consultants, erudite scum, like us. So they don’t need hack work.”

“Get me out of this, Yegor. Oh, get me out!” Algoltsov took a gulp. “Half the royalties are yours. I’ll become fashionable, like Kirill, the son of a bitch, Serebryanikov, like Severyanin in the old days. I long for freedom. I, like some kind of slave, have long thought of fleeing—”

“’Man is doomed to be free.’ Sartre. You are free, I’m free, everyone is free. Everyone has the right to contract with whomever you please and on whatever terms you please. Having made the contract, you are obliged to fulfill it.” Yegor’s voice rang out in a more severe register. “Therefore, by the twenty-second, you’d better deliver, minimum, ten poems for Sergeich and a screenplay for the niece. If you don’t agree, I’ll take you out to the courtyard now and shoot you behind the trash bin. If you agree, you can go. You know the rates.”

“Nepotism,” sobbed Algoltsov.


“The employment of nieces, and equally of nephews, is called nepotism. I want a hundred dollars.”

“Give me the poems you just read and you’ll get more.”

Agoltsov laid out the stained sheets of paper, took the receipt, took a gulp, and walked out, coughing to the left and to the right. He considered, as he always did in complicated circumstances, whether he couldn’t kill himself somehow painlessly with something soft or something not bitter and not sharp. So no one would bother him any more.

Yegor abandoned the little table where the genius had sat. He immersed himself in the depths of the restaurant, closer to the bar. He asked the waitress to keep an eye out for a woman who resembled the actor Mashkov, and to bring her to him when she came in.

Proceed to Chapter 4...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 840...

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