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Bewildering Stories discusses Natan Dubovitsky’s Near Zero, chapter 4, with the translator, Bill Bowler.

[Bill Bowler] In Natan Dubovitsky’s Near Zero, chapter 4, Nikita Marievna is a person with a man’s first name and a patronymic — a form derived from the father’s name — seemingly based on a woman’s name, Maria. A female patronymic induces a certain cognitive dissonance in Russian, but it could arise if a child had “two mommies.”

Yegor then asks Nikita, in effect, what did your friends call your dad: “Uncle Mary”? With the revelation that the patronymic is “daughter of Marius,” Dubovitsky resolves the confusion, but the combination Marius Solomonovich is also a bit incongruous in Russian, and the author pivots from gender identity to Jewish identity, two potentially hot-button issues in Russia.

[Don Webb] Thanks, Bill; the information is very helpful. Chapter 4 of Near Zero is very much in the spirit of the early 21st century; it contains one culturally confusing zinger after another.

It is disconcerting that “Jewish identity” would be a “hot-button” topic in Russia, especially on the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of Auschwitz.

Gender identity, on the other hand, is a current topic in other countries, as well. As your hypertext note points out, the name “Nikita” is masculine in Russian but has become feminine or gender-neutral in other languages.

Meanwhile, “Sasha” has the feminine declension but can be either a male or female nickname. And Dubovitsky seems to be having a little fun with grammar, because “uncle” is grammatically feminine but naturally masculine. Mercifully, the word for “aunt” is grammatically feminine.

The custom of a patronymic “middle name” strongly reflects a patriarchal society, all right, but why not a “matronymic”? Or both? Or make the choice optional. But how would you handle formal greetings? “Good morning, Sasha Alexandrovich Alexandravna. Tell me, was everybody in your family named ‘Sasha’?”

Of course, English doesn’t have that problem. A radical outlier in the Indo-European family, it has lost grammatical gender. When you’re doing business with customers who speak not Old English but Old Celtic, Old Norse, Old French or Old Who Knows What, you simplify trade talk as much as possible. After a while, it becomes something you might like to try at home. Such are the advantages of a creole.

The conversations in Chapter 4 multiply controversies. Sasha, the sexless waiter and/or waitress, warns the diners that anything they eat may be unhealthy. His/her/their far-fetched conclusion echoes Tom Lehrer’s song about pollution: “Don’t drink the water, and don’t breathe the air.”

Nikita and Yegor talk somewhat gingerly about Stalin and Khrushchev. Was Nikita Khrushchev right to denounce Stalin’s brutality? On the other hand, did Stalin prevent civil war? One might ask: in the absence of a civil society and with the ever-present threat of the gulag, what’s the difference? Dubovitsky — perhaps looking over his shoulder in his office in the Kremlin — seems to walk on both sides of the street at once.

Yegor proposes that Nikita write under the same byline contradictory reports about political, economic and environmental corruption. What can anyone expect but that her readers won’t know what the truth is other than that she and her brand of journalism can’t be trusted.

But Yegor overlooks a consequence: when all news is deliberately made “fake,” even the pronouncements of the government served by a certain Vyacheslav Surkov cannot be believed. As has already happened elsewhere, public policy and politics will devolve into Twitter rants. And, as in Orwell’s 1984, propaganda itself will become self-contradictory. Would-be dictators of all countries, take note.

If, as Albert Camus said, the 20th century was the “century of fear,” the 21st may well be that of impending doom. In chapter 4 of Near Zero, Dubovitsky points the way to what economist Hyman Minsky presciently predicted in financial markets: moments when an asset’s value undergoes a sudden and unforeseen collapse. Language can no longer reflect social change. Food may contain hidden dangers. And when a moral compass spins aimlessly, we can talk about politics and the environment only out of both sides of our mouth.

“Is there really a dark age ahead? Or has it already begun?” The question asked on November 7, 2016 remains as current now as it was then. Chapter 4 of Near Zero answers with a sigh of sardonic despair. By all accounts, the future is coming, right on schedule.

Responses welcome!

date Copyright © January 27, 2020 by Bewildering Stories

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